Welshman earns a place in last 16 with the DragonsThere’ll definitely be a Royal in the last 16 of the European Championships – Monday evening’s remarkable 3-0 win against Russia for Wales means that Chris Gunter and his countrymen finished ahead of Slovakia, Russia and England to top their group and earn a place in the next round!
They face a wait to find out their opponents in the next round; they’ll face the third-placed team from either Group A, C or D – which could include Ollie Norwood’s Northern Ireland. That game is due to take place at the Parc des Princes in Paris on Saturday 25th June.
The Dragons won their opener against Slovakia, but suffered late heartache against England – meaning that they went into their final match against the Russians needing a result to guarantee a chance to emerge from the group. From an outside perspective, it looked set to be a nervy, tense occasion in Toulouse.
It was anything but. The Dragons stormed out of the traps and went two goals ahead with 20 minutes on the clock – indeed they could have been further out of sight by half-time.
The first came through Arsenal man Aaron Ramsey, as Joe Allen slipped a ball through the middle to the onside runner – the bleach-blonde midfielder lifted the ball over the onrushing Igor Akinfeev for an 11th-minute lead.
Gunter was supporting the attack from the right wing-back position – but it was his compatriot on the other flank that was the unlikely source of Wales’ second. Swansea defender Neil Taylor stormed into space in the wide positions, allowing Gareth Bale to pick him out in the area – the first shot was saved, but he chested down and volleyed home the rebound to wider the margin.
Sam Vokes and Bale both had good opportunities to put the game out of sight before half-time – though at the other end, goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey made a critical save from a rare Russian attack as a punt downfield was met by a stretching Aleksandr Kokorin.
But the night belonged to Wales. Real Madrid forward Bale, who had had gone within a couple of feet from netting his third free-kick of the tournament around the hour-mark, was the man to add the third.
The move began through Gunter’s barnstorming run down the flank – the Royals defender slipped the ball into Ramsey, who picked a pass in turn for Bale, and the Galactico stroked past Russian custodian Akinfeev with the outside of his left boot to put the result beyond question.
Artem Dzyuba had an opportunity to make the scoreline a little more respectable for Russia in the final few minutes, but he conspired to direct his effort over the crossbar with the goal at his mercy as a low cross came in from the left.
The only question-mark heading into the closing stages was whether Gunter’s country would top the group or not. Goalflashes from England’s meeting with Slovakia in Saint-Etienne were conspicuous by their absence though, as the two games – which both kicked off at 8pm – wound to a close. Bale came off in the final 10 minutes, being replaced by another Royals Academy graduate in the shape of Simon Church for his first appearance in the tournament.
When the final whistle sounded on a 3-0 triumph, there was a two-minute wait for the Welsh staff, players and supporters before the news filtered through of the goalless draw between England and Slovakia – then they could celebrate finishing top of their four-team group and a place in the last 16!
Congratulations to Chris Gunter and all involved for Wales on another history-making night. In context, the last time they were in the knockout stages was in the 1958 World Cup, when Pelé hit the winner against them for Brazil!