Crystal Palace. Burnley. MK Dons: the clubs at which Wales’ three substitutions on Wednesday ply their trade. An indication of just how wonderfully they have done at Euro 2016, and a reason for their eventual demise. For the first time in what seemed like a lifetime, the Dragons were made to look like a country partaking in only the second major international tournament in their history in Lyon.
Their application was not found wanting. Their endeavour was not found wanting. Their desire was, as it had been in the previous five games, evident throughout. But something was different in the 2-0 defeat to Portugal; it did not take a genius to note it. As their opponents celebrated a maiden tournament victory in normal time to reach the final, Wales lamented their inability to score for the first game this summer. They were outclassed and out-thought for the first time in France.
It was in direct contrast to their triumph over Belgium. Wales had been comfortable, daring and effective against a superior side on Friday, but were limited, lacking and uninspiring five days later. Hal Robson-Kanu had earned the headlines after the quarter final, but it was Aaron Ramsey who revelled in his free role. His yellow card and subsequent suspension provided the dark lining on a silver cloud.
‘The challenge is now on to the rest of the Wales side to get this freestyler to a final,’ wrote Sarah Winterburn after that game. It was a challenge the Arsenal midfielder’s teammates failed to step up to against Portugal. Few teams would regret having to call upon a recent Premier League winner to fill the void, but as admirable as Andy King’s story has been with Leicester, the international version does not conclude with a similar fairytale. The 27-year-old was charged with replacing Ramsey, but it was a thankless task, even for a Leicester substitute.
After a first half we are contractually obliged to refer to as ‘cagey’ and ‘tactical’, the problems for Chris Coleman were readily apparent. Portugal were poor in the opening stages, but this was a side who had yet to win a game all summer, and whose critics continue to mount. Wales, the tournament’s second-highest goalscorers, had created nothing. Without Ramsey, there was no link between midfield and attack. Without Ramsey, there were ball-passers, but no ball-carriers. Without Ramsey, there was no guile or trickery in between the lines. Without Ramsey, there was little hope of extending this remarkable story beyond the semi-final stage.
“We probably understated how big an influence Ramsey has before the game,” noted Craig Bellamy at full-time. For a player whose future as a regular starter for his club is by no means certain, the 25-year-old has assumed the mantle of his country’s key component. Gareth Bale is the Galactico, the superstar, but no player struggled more evidently in the absence of Ramsey.
With no support from King, nor Joes Allen or Ledley, Bale was forced to drop back and seek possession himself. The forward opted to play deeper than he is accustomed to, often removing the outlet and threat he provides in attack. With no Ramsey to benefit from the space, Wales failed to create a meaningful chance. Without his wingman, Bale was never going to get lucky.
In direct contract was his club teammate, and the individual he shared much of the build-up with. Cristiano Ronaldo cut a frustrated figure throughout much of the game in Lyon, but played a decisive role in both of Portugal’s goals. First, he powered home a header from a corner, before his wayward effort was steered in by Nani moments later. The tie was dead early in the second half, and Ronaldo’s persistence had paid off. The 31-year-old was shackled by James Collins in the first half, but did not relent as he continued to lead the line. He and Bale both had only one touch in the opposition’s penalty area after 45 minutes, but Ronaldo (left) was almost always the highest player up the pitch for his side. Bale found possession everywhere but anywhere he could fashion a goalscoring opportunity.
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Only two players had more touches than Bale (75) as he sought to compensate for Ramsey’s absence. Ronaldo had 20 fewer, and the third-lowest of any Portugal starter, but only one of those individuals will look ahead to Sunday’s showpiece at the Stade de France. As if to drive the point home, Bale hit a tame long-range free-kick into the wall as Wales’ efforts finally stalled.
Ahead of both this semi-final and the tournament itself, Wales’ media spotlight was placed on one man and one man only. Bale was the leader of their Golden Generation, the prodigal son done good, and the most expensive footballer on the planet. On this occasion at least, Wales were a ‘one-man team’. Unfortunately for them, that man was on the bench, suspended and deflated, as substitutes from Crystal Palace, Burnley and MK Dons could not rescue the dream.