Saturday, 25 June 2016

Wales v Northern Ireland Match Analysis

If there was ever a greater display of the unifying power of sport than that which has been on display at this tournament, then I've yet to see it. After the violence and public disorder of the first week, the beautiful game came to the fore and transfixed the continent with a blend of light entertainment, tension and high drama. Then we had a two day break, and Europe went to hell and in a hand-cart - politically speaking at least. You see what happens when there's no football? With everything that has happened in the last two days, Europe, and particularly the UK, needs a distraction, and in this game we have the perfect diversion to the news dominating the headlines.


After topping their group, Wales headed into this fixture full of confidence, especially because some of the relatively unknown players, particularly Ben Davies and James Chester, have stepped out of the shadows of their more illustrious teammates. The goal threat of Bale, the tireless running of Ramsey and the calm, accurate passing game of Joe Allen have turned this previously unfancied team into many peoples tournament dark horses. But, could they reproduce the heroics of the Russian performance against a dogged and resilient Northern Ireland, who, despite spending the majority of their opening games being completely dominated by the opposition, have only conceded two goals?

When you consider the many divisions in Northern Irish society, the level of unity shown by their football team is quite staggering, couple that with the fact that they only have 40 professional footballers to choose from, and it's a miracle that they are even here at all. Yet, here they are, 90 minutes away from the quarter-finals. Qualification made them heroes, getting through to the knockouts made them legends, a victory today would make them immortal.

Wales started the game with an unchanged side, while O' Neill opted to bring Lafferty back into the fold after being dropped for the last two matches. Predictably, Northern Ireland looked to close down the Welsh at every opportunity and use the long, diagonal ball to Lafferty as an attacking platform. A good strike by Dallas on nine minutes, after a surprisingly tidy passing move, brought the first save of the match by Hennessy in the Welsh goal. Meanwhile, Chris Coleman had obviously identified the left back area as a weakness, and looked to attack the Irish down the right flank at every opportunity.


The derby atmosphere and the familiarity of the players made for a fairly tense opening half hour, with neither side dominating for any length of time. Bale looked the most dangerous for Wales, and so wasn't allowed any time to settle on the ball, however when he did find space he looked sharp. Davis emerged as Northern Ireland's most effective player, winning the ball and bringing others into play with some clever passing.
Tactically, O'Neill won the first half. The three centre backs crowded out the Welsh attack, with the full backs taking an advanced position, preventing their opposite numbers from joining the build up. Because of this, Wales never looked fully settled, so the nil nil scoreline would've been gratefully received in the Welsh dugout.

Northern Ireland started the second half on the front foot, causing Wales to defend resolutely, with high pressing from the men in green and white forcing free kicks in dangerous areas. Wales needed a different option as an 'out' ball, which prompted Coleman to put Robson-Kanu on for the ineffective Vokes. Straight after the substitution, Bale was fouled some 35 yards from goal. With his ability and recent record it looked like being the breakthrough that Wales needed, however, McGovern had done his homework and made the save from Bale's dangerous free kick.


With 20 minutes to go, as players started to tire, the game began to open up, although clear cut chances were still few and far between. Northern Ireland looked the most dangerous until the 74th minute, when an unattended Bale sent a low cross into the box from the left that was turned into his own net by Gareth McAuley. It was a cruel blow for the Ulstermen, and a reminder of just how important Gareth Bale is to the Welsh football team.

The final 15 minutes were played out with no real opening from either side, Northern Ireland had given everything and were now running on fumes, while Wales found a second wind that saw them over the line. With hope fading and time running out Michael O'Neill cut a forlorn figure on the touchline, as his Welsh counterpart animatedly directed his players from the technical area.


 The full-time whistle was met with wild celebrations from a Welsh side who, quite honestly, were second best for most of the game. Once again, the worlds most expensive footballer proved to be the difference, providing the decisive ball that forced an error which broke the hearts of the green and white army.

After a tumultuous week in which the British electorate had opted to exit the European Union, one corner of the United Kingdom has earned the right to remain in Europe, for a little while at least.

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