Wales warm to pressure of history-making Belgium game
LILLE, France (AP):
The last time the spotlight was on Wales in the way it is now at the European Championship, a 17-year-old Pele scored the only goal for Brazil in a World Cup quarter-final.
Today, Wales can go one stage further than they did in 1958 the last time they made the finals of a major tournament when they take on Belgium for a place in the semi-finals of Euro 2016.
"You have to put this down as the biggest game our country has ever been involved in (since)," Wales coach Chris Coleman said yesterday. "That's a big deal."
It is a new kind of pressure on a team UEFA has dubbed one of its two "Cinderella stories" along with Iceland at Euro 2016.
When Coleman took charge in 2012, Wales were ranked outside the top 100 by FIFA and in a downward spiral of low seeding and tough draws while trying to qualify for tournaments.
"We have experienced the other pressure, which is tough, a lot tougher than this one we have got, I can promise you that," the former Wales defender said.
The two teams were again grouped in qualifying for Euro 2016, and Wales more than held their own: A 0-0 draw in Brussels and a 1-0 win in Cardiff, clinched by Gareth Bale's goal.
Coleman cautioned against seeking form lines from games played more than a year ago.
What could count is the fitness of key defenders on either side.
Belgium will be without left back Jan Vertonghen, who will miss the rest of the tournament after twisting his ankle in training.
The Belgians will also be without centre back Thomas Vermaelen, who is serving a one-match ban.
By contrast, Wales have been boosted by captain Ashley Williams recovering from a left shoulder injury. The 31-year-old centre back collided with a teammate in the 1-0 over Northern Ireland in the round of 16 last Saturday.
"It's obviously great news for us, positive news that he's going to be available," Coleman said of Williams. "He has never, ever disappointed me, on or off the pitch."
Belgium come into the match in form, following their 4-0 drubbing of Hungary in the round of 16. They also have the potential advantage of playing what is almost a home match. Lille is just 10 kilometres away from the Belgian border.