A night of mixed emotions for Aaron Ramsey. Wales thoroughly deserved their 3 – 1 win over Belgium but the midfielder misses the semi-final through suspension. From his reaction as the yellow card was brandished, it was a point he knew only too well.
Yellow cards in tournaments have always been a contentious issue with a string of players suffering the same ill-fortune as Ramsey. I have every sympathy for him but until the rules change, two yellows means suspension. With IFAB addressing the ‘triple jeopardy’ rule, there’s hope things may change in the future.
For Ramsey right now, that’s scant consolation.
It looked as if it might go wrong for Wales when Nainngolan opened the scoring with a superb long-range effort; in football parlance, it was a shot which stayed hit. Belgium had started brightly and looked as if they might overrun their opponents.
Instead of capitulating, the Welsh displayed every quality which England lacked: Pride, passion, determination and quality. The genuine strength of their performance was playing to their genuine strengths.
Unlike England, they haven’t fallen into the trap of playing a style of football which is alien to them. Successive England managers, seduced by the allure of the Premier League, mistakenly believe that the national squad are becoming proficient technicians. It overlooks the positive influence of foreign players and coaches on the English game.
Their thinking is fundamentally flawed, not least because of their outdated and misguided tactical beliefs. Chris Coleman on the other hand, has got it right in this tournament. His side is hard-working enough to play the percentages and run into the channels. Hal Robson-Kanu’s goal resulted from Ramsey’s excellent run.
It was another great performance from the Arsenal man who has been widely praised for his impact on the Welsh. Bale gets the headlines – the semi final is already billed as “Ronaldo v Bale” – but Ramsey is the vital cog, bridging the gap between defence and attack.
His absence will be deeply felt but not insurmountable, not least because the Portuguese have been no great shakes so far.
Defensive weaknesses exposed by the Hungarians have been replaced by defensive and dour performances. Not a one-man band but certainly not an orchestra either; pub rock football. Effective but they are almost out-Greecing Rehhagel’s Greece.
Can Wales reach the final? Of course, they genuinely have a good chance – it’s their ‘once in a lifetime’ moment whilst England slouch on the road to nowhere.
Reaching the last four has emphasised the shambles over which Hodgson presided. The FA, architects of England’s downfall by not replacing the former Fulham coach two years ago, are doing what they do best: too little, too late.
Ramsey’s international form reopens the debate on his Arsenal displays. He enjoys a freer role with Coleman, slipping in from the flank to the middle at will. With Arsenal, he’s the junior creative talent but suppressing his instincts for the betterment of the team isn’t bringing the best out of him.
Nor, judging by the post-Christmas form, is it doing Arsenal any good. If we want to see the best of Ramsey, I am all in favour of 4-2-3-1 with Xhaka and Cazorla at the base, behind an attacking triumvirate of Ramsey, Özil and Sanchez.
That’s almost making the team fit around Ramsey which is the fundamental question: which is more important – the player or the team? It’s one to which Arsene has to find the answer because Ramsey genuinely seems to be enjoying himself at Euro 2016, even during their 1 – 2 reverse to England.
You have to wonder if another season of being shunted to the fight will see the frustration already manifesting in some sections of the support, surface in the player. I can’t say I would blame him either. I’m not suggesting he’s fed up, before you ask.
As it is, let the Welsh enjoy their moment in the spotlight. As Coleman cheerfully admitted in his post-match interviews, this is unprecedented success for him, the players and the country. Can it have a fairy tale ending?
They said Leicester City couldn’t win the Premier League…