McAuley bails Bale and Wales out!

In the Battle of Britain, Chris Coleman’s team looked a bit overawed by the occasion against a doughty Northern Ireland side, but a moment of magic from Gareth Bale procured a quarterfinals berth for it.

Portugal's Ricardo Quaresma scores, what proved to be the match-winner, in extra-time against Croatia.   -  Reuters

A day after Britain voted overwhelmingly to announce its separation from the European Union, Wales bought its ticket to prolong its stay at the EURO. In the Battle of Britain, Chris Coleman’s team looked a bit overawed by the occasion against a doughty Northern Ireland side, but a moment of magic from Gareth Bale procured a quarterfinals berth for it.

 

The Irish made one change to their squad with Kyle Lafferty starting upfront, ahead of Conor Washington in a 4-5-1 formation. Manager Michael O’Neill, well aware of the threat from Bale, employed a zonal marking for the former Tottenham winger with Jonny Evans (when Bale played down the middle) and Stuart Dallas (on the wings) keeping a close watch on him. The density of the Irish defence also made it virtually impossible for Bale to cut inside and take a shot at goal.

With the threat of its talisman largely reduced, Wales, which has excelled in this competition, playing on the counter, found it hard to break the Northern Ireland defence.

The Irish defence of Evans, Cathcart, McAuley and Hughes were happy to sit deep, crowding the penalty box, forcing the opposition to occupy space wide. Wales, failing to find space behind the defence, banked on the work of Gunter and Taylor down the flanks, who peppered the box with crosses. The defenders, adept in the air, were happy to deal with them, easily outmanoeuvring Sam Vokes. The Burnley striker was often caught alone in the box with Bale dropping deep to find more of the ball. Bale was constantly forced to come a few yards into his own half to receive the ball.

Wales for the first time in the tournament had more possession than the opposition, enjoying 54 percent of the ball but found it hard to create clear chances. The Irish game-plan of hitting Wales on the counter, however, bore little fruit as Lafferty failed to grab the few chances that came his way.

The introduction of Robson-Kanu (for Vokes) in the 55th minute brought some nice interplay between him, Bale and Aaron Ramsey and Wales suddenly looked more promising while going on the attack. The only goal of the game came from a low cross from Bale in the 75th minute. The Real Madrid forward’s pass from the left was unfortunately bundled into his own goal by McAuley, who went for a last ditch clearance, trying to keep the ball away from a waiting Robson-Kanu in the box.

 

Despite the win, Coleman will be worried about his team’s failure to find a way past a defensively strong unit. Wales will face the winner of the match between Belgium and Hungary. The team’s game is better suited against Belgium, which is an expansive, attacking side in nature. Wales can go back to its tactics of sitting deep, conceding possession and hitting the Red Devils on the break utilising the pace of Bale and Ramsey.

Portugal was lucky to scrape past Croatia in another pre-quarterfinals. The game failed to live up to its pre-game hype with both sides guilty of spraying too many mis-passes thereby breaking the flow of the game.

Ronaldo and Nani, the Portuguese front men, sat deeper than usual, ensuing Luka Modric found no space behind them. The battle was largely fought in the midfield with far too many horizontal passes in the middle of the field. Despite a plethora of attacking talent, both sides were happy to sit out, allowing the game to drift towards a shootout.

The introduction of Renato Sanches brought more directness to Portugal’s play, but the teenager was guilty of wasting his final pass, often failing to find teammates. His lack of consistency is clearly the reason for him not finding more regular starts in the competition.

Sanches, however, took advantage of his fresh legs, running past the tired Croatian defenders to deliver the ball from a counter attack to Nani. The former Manchester United winger mishit his shot – it was not an intended pass – but fortunately, Ronaldo had made the run to the box in the 117th minute. And Ricardo Quaresma was there to finish the job after Subasic had parried Ronaldo’s effort into his path.