Bale making Wales believe after win over Belgium
Three observations from Wales' 1-0 triumph over Belgium in Euro 2016 qualifying.
1. This feels like Wales' time
The roar that erupted inside Cardiff City Stadium at full-time, after Wales had defended a late flurry of Belgian corners that included a futile sortie upfield from Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, took the breath away. This will go down as a famous night in the country's football history if -- as seems likely now -- Chris Coleman's team sees out its final four Euro 2016 qualifiers and reaches next summer's tournament in France.
It was a roar that signalled three points and top spot in Group B, but it also meant something more. Wales had done everything asked of them in their previous five games but there was still a question mark over their ability to defeat a top side when the pressure was on. False dawns have been commonplace since their last major finals in 1958, and this was a chance to prove that the class of 2015 is the real deal.
Wales passed the test with aplomb, riding out a rocky opening spell and a flurry of second half crosses and winning the game with a moment of genuine quality from Gareth Bale. Their next four tasks look simpler on paper: even if something goes astray in Cyprus or Bosnia and Herzegovina, or at home to Israel, there is the welcome cushion of a home fixture with Andorra to close out their campaign. Nothing can be taken for granted, but Wales, who are now five points clear of third-place Israel, sense that this is their moment -- and the noise inside the stadium suggested that something about this time feels very different.
2. Cold-blooded Bale makes the difference
Nobody could quite believe it -- not least Bale, as he wheeled away towards the left corner flag. But his winning goal bore the hallmarks of a practiced, cold-blooded finisher. There had been little reason for Bale, several yards offside, to expect to receive the ball legitimately after Aaron Ramsey's free kick had been cleared, but it took milliseconds to get over the surprise of Radja Nainggolan's disastrous defensive header. Facing away from goal, Bale controlled with his chest, turned and stroked the ball beneath Courtois as if he had been asked to do the simplest thing in the world. Like all the best finishes, it looked so straightforward.
The goal had come from nowhere. Wales had started to show a few signs of settling, but Belgium, visibly confident after last Sunday's win in France, had controlled the early stages and Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey had been required to save smartly to his left from Nainggolan's 18-yard curler. Eden Hazard had also come close and the fear was growing that Wales had not managed the kind of fast start that would feed upon the spine-tingling atmosphere inside Cardiff City Stadium.
But Coleman's team is not easily cowed and the way they grabbed the momentum after Bale's goal spoke of the initiative and confidence courses through their ranks. Courtois was called into action by an angled Aaron Ramsey drive and Hal Robson-Kanu should have scored from Nicolas Lombaerts' subsequent snatched clearance; suddenly Wales were a pass sharper, a yard faster, and now they were standing toe-to-toe with a team whose collective talent tends to dominate most pre-match discussions.
That spell of verve and dominance did not last beyond halftime and, inevitably, there were periods when this felt like a lower-ranked team in a cup tie clinging against a more vaunted opponent. But this is a Wales side in which every player knows his job. Coleman had backed himself before the game by sticking with the five-man defensive setup that had fared so well in Israel three months previously, despite missing key components in James Collins and Ben Davies. Their replacements, James Chester and Jazz Richards, knew their roles to the letter and, under particularly intense pressure at either end of the second half, handled everything thrown at them. It was a performance typical of Wales' campaign to date: a blend of organisation, sheer guts and a sprinkling of top quality that, in ties like this, combine to give them every chance.
3. Belgium fall away alarmingly
For 25 minutes it seemed that Nainggolan was going to have one of those games where everything comes off. Wales had found it hard to lay a finger on Belgium and particularly the Roma midfielder, with the thought occurring more than once that Belgium boss Marc Wilmots missed a trick by omitting such a sleek operator from his World Cup squad last summer.
Perhaps things were coming too easily to Nainggolan and his teammates; it is virtually the only explanation for the header -- a difficult attempt to find Courtois when the simple option was to clear the ball -- that looped straight onto the chest of a disbelieving Bale.
Even more surprising was the effect that Nainggolan's error had on Belgium's performance. Passes that had been popped around telepathically started taking that extra second to deliver; there was a clear concern that Bale's pace on the counter could take the game beyond their reach, and for the next 20 minutes they lost all direction -- a pale, nervous imitation of a team that sits second in FIFA's rankings. When Lombaerts skewed a simple sideways ball intended for Jan Vertonghen out of play 39 minutes in, it was clear that halftime could not come soon enough.
Wilmots introduced Romelu Lukaku at halftime and, as expected, Belgium came on strongly at the resumption. Christian Benteke jabbed a fine chance over seconds after the break; Kevin de Bruyne fizzed a low left-footer just wide of a static Hennessey's post; Toby Alderweireld put a free header over; Hazard ran, shot, headed, but found his every avenue blocked. What had seemed likely to be a siege fizzled out alarmingly and, by the time Manchester City's Jason Denayer had misplaced a pass for his right-back Alderweireld in a mirror image of Lombaerts' error, it was clear that proceedings were back to where they had been half an hour previously.
As the game wore on, the invention of Hazard -- drifting inside and out -- became Belgium's only likely threat against a Wales side whose three-man central defence was the tightest of locks to pick. One delicate chip to the back post was defended superbly by Chris Gunter, who was not alone in having an excellent night.
But Belgium, who too often seem to lack the fluidity that the talents at their disposal should create, had long since run out of ideas and their performance will put the position of Wilmots under further scrutiny. The team that played the final 65 minutes was unrecognisable than the one that had dominated at 0-0, and that is no hallmark of a European champion.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.