Montreal’s Laurent Ciman poised for MLS ‘flagship moment’
by Scott Nicholls — follow on twitter: @scottnicholls
At the beginning of the European Championships you’d be laughed at if you’d said Wales were going to be the “home nations’” last hope of securing any kind of pride for ‘Britain’. But here we are — Wales. Quarter finalists.
Surprising? Yes. Cinderella? Maybe not.
The truth is that Wales deserve to be here, and they deserve to be playing in what is their first quarter final in a major tournament since 1958. There has been an escalation in quality for Wales over the last few years that is almost (see Iceland) unparalleled in international soccer. A big proponent of that uptick in quality is the leadership and quality of Gareth Bale.
Though the Real Madrid star may not be the Dragons’ captain, he is unmistakably a leader on and off the field. Unabashedly Welsh, he is proud of his country and its achievements. With every goal he scores, sets up, or even just watches happen, you can see how much it means to him.
Bale is the definition of a “big game” player. When it has mattered most to Wales during this European Championship campaign — dating back to qualifying — he has stepped both his, and his teammates game up to pull through. That’s the difference between him and his Real Madrid compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo.
Bale scored the winning goal in a 1-0 win over Belgium during qualifying. The Welshman believes that Wales have improved since then, too.
“From that night, we have gone up to another level” Bale said, confidently. “We’ve taken our game on with playing more games in our system, gelling even more.”
Bale even concedes that the goal he scored against Belgium was the most important Welsh goal he’s ever scored.
“It was an important goal for me personally on my 50th cap and or the team. It gave us the belief that we can take on and beat the big teams.”
Wales are certainly in with a chance of beating the Red Devils again in a European Championships where we’re continually guessing where the next surprise is coming next. Chris Coleman said of the 1-0 win in qualifying that it was “the greatest match in our [Wales’] history,” one would imagine it’ll be even greater this time around if it means Wales progressing to the semi-finals.
There are lots of positives to take from Wales’ performance so far. Gareth Bale is joint top of the Golden Boot race, and the Dragons have trailed opponents for just two minutes and thirty-one seconds up until this point — a staggering record the Red Devils surely wont take lightly.
But with positives comes negatives.
Wales’ only loss at this European Championships so far? A last minute collapse against an England team that most media (and fans) have branded “pathetic,” and “clueless.” To boot you’d have expected Wales to have slaughtered a Northern Irish team that were ranked bottom of almost all statistical categories and could barely get the ball out of their own half. Yet up until the tragic own-goal Michael O’Neill’s men conceded you got the feeling this game may end up into extra-time and penalties.
Ashley Williams is realistically the only injury doubt for Wales, and he’s already been announced fit to play after tests came back negative for a dislocated shoulder. While this is good news for Chirs Coleman and his men, you have to wonder whether a physical battle with the physical specimen that is Romelu Lukaku is going to hinder Wales progress in defense.
There has been a lot of downcast opinion of Belgium coming into this tournament. With players like Eden Hazard and Kevin DeBruyne it seems opinion of the team has gotten a little carried away — some people tipping them as outsiders to win the World Cup in Brazil two years ago.
The Red Devils were a younger team then, and they were only narrowly dispatched 1-0 by eventual runners up Argentina. Admittedly Belgium have had their problems, and the overarching feeling among the Belgian people is that Marc Wilmots just isn’t up to the job as head coach.
Belgians don’t like his tactics; they say he restricts players like Hazard and DeBruyne; they don’t like his team selection; everything he does is seemingly wrong (sound familiar, America?). But when media in the US mooted Belgium to be the disappointment of this competition, that puzzled the Belgians.
Belgium handed Hungary a 4-0 loss in the round of 16, and never really looked like they needed to get out of second gear.
Hazard looked masterful, DeBruyne dangerous, and Michy Batshuayi again looked dangerous off the bench. Belgium is so stacked with wonderful attacking options Champions League final star Yannick Carrasco has been largely on the bench!
Belgium have been relatively suspect on defense throughout this competition, but with Wales not being able to break down Northern Ireland more than once in 90 minutes — it should be safe to assume they may not be able to break Toby Alderweireld and co in the Belgian back line, despite the Red Devils being without Jan Vertonghen; Nicolas Lombaerts; Dedryck Boyata; and Thomas Vermaelen.
The Montreal Impact’s Laurent Ciman looks like he might be starting in the quarter finals of a major European tournament — a flagship moment for Major League Soccer.
Marc Wilmots has not been impressed with Gareth Bale’s cocky attitude. In a press conference earlier this week Wilmots spoke of Bale and Aaron Ramsey stating that they were Wales’ “two top players.”
Therein lies the worry for Wales. Gareth Bale is able to elevate the performance of a whole team, but that in itself is likely not going to be enough to de-rail a Belgium team whom are just getting better and better with every game they play in this tournament.
People who think that this is Belgium’s “golden generations” last chance at success are wrong — they’re still growing and developing as a team. They’ll look to assert their dominance throughout the rest of this tournament, starting with a comfortable win over Wales in Lille.
Belgium: The Rode Duivels are without most of their back four. Jan Vertonghen picked up an ankle ligament injury in raining, Thomas Vermaelen is suspended; Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts didn’t even make it to the tournament.
Expect Jordan Lukaku to slot in at left full-back, and Laurent Ciman preferred to Jason Denayer at centre-back because of his experience.
Wales: The Welsh Dragons will have Ashley Williams at their disposal after passing fitness tests on his shoulder injury this week, the Wales captain was a participant in full training Friday. All 22 of Wales’ other players are fit.