Listening to Gareth Bale, one would be forgiven for thinking that Wales already had one foot in the Euro 2016 final.
Not that he has outright suggested that they will definitely win it or anything, but the natural self-confidence that shines through when he speaks makes it almost impossible not to believe that this team is capable of going all the way in this tournament.
“Obviously you come to the tournament for one reason. To win,
“Not to play three games and go home. The ultimate goal is we want to try and win the tournament.
“It’s a cliche but we’ll take each one as it comes. Yes we would love to win it, but all our focus now is on Northern Ireland.”
(via BBC Sport)
Chris Coleman’s side are here to win, and the way in which they dismantled what was an admittedly poor Russia side showed that they are quite capable of going far in this tournament.
Bale has been the star of the show, not just for Wales but arguably of Euro 2016 itself, and has finally laid claim to being considered in the same breath as Neymar, Ronaldo and Messi.
Some players can just take to a tournament and make it their own from day one, and that’s precisely what Bale is doing here. Where some can wilt under the pressure of being the leading force of a side, the world’s most expensive player is thriving on it.
That said, it is not all about Bale. He has a supporting cast of players behind him that are hitting form at just the right time.
Joe Allen has been tremendous in midfield, Aaron Ramsey has been belying his indifferent club form, while the likes of James Chester, Ben Davies and Neil Taylor in defence have all deserved the plaudits that have been coming their way.
Are they world class? Not at all. But they don’t have to be. We have seen countless times, even in this very tournament with Greece in 2004, what a team can achieve if it is organised and tactically astute. Names don’t win matches – players do.
Belief and togetherness have been crucial in the achievements of this set of players over the past two years – the squad slogan is “Together Stronger” and it’s a mantra that these players live by, as Bale himself has attested to:
“It’s an amazing feeling in the camp. We’ve not just been working on it two years,
“It’s been since we were all young boys, playing together. I was 16, some were 17, 18,
“We’ve come through a massive journey.”
That togetherness can carry them for as long as they allow it to. Not to compare it to Leicester City in the Premier League because that was something of an anomaly, but if they get past Northern Ireland today and find themselves in the quarter finals, with just two more matches between them and the European Championship final, then they will become that bit more determined to make that happen.
Another factor in their favour is that the knockout stage draw has been kind to them. With France, Spain, Italy, Germany and England all bottlenecked on one side of the draw, which of course means that only one of them (if any) will be in the final, Wales find themselves in with teams such as Croatia, Poland, Portugal, Switzerland and Belgium (whom they could face in the quarter final).
Wales have nothing to fear from those sides, and nor should they. They will have every confidence of pushing aside Northern Ireland today, before going on to face a Belgium side that they took four points from in qualifying for this competition. After that, who knows?
Make no mistake, though, this is a team that can win Euro 2016.