Wales’ historic Euro 2016 campaign has been a heady emotional cocktail and the win against Russia was perhaps the most stirring yet.
The manner of victory was exhilarating, the unity between fans and players uplifting and the result perhaps the greatest in Welsh football history.
For manager Chris Coleman, the strongest emotion was one of pride.
“I’m immensely proud of nights like tonight, when you see a sea of red supporters and hear that kind of support,” he said.
Wales’ greatest moment?
The Wales football team has traditionally been more familiar with failure than success, although the current side have bucked that trend.
Qualifying for Euro 2016 ended a 58-year absence from major tournaments and the campaign included highlights such as the ruthless dispatching of Israel and a highly-charged victory against a Belgium side then ranked second in the world.
So where does the win against Russia rank among this team’s achievements?
“This is the best,” according to Chris Coleman.
There was no hesitation from the former Wales defender, who rated the demolition of Russia as the undoubted highlight of his career.
Such was the comprehensive nature of the performance, it could justifiably be described as the greatest display in Welsh football history.
The pinnacle of Wales’ 1958 World Cup campaign was a 2-1 win over Hungary, while a 1991 victory against then world champions Germany and a qualifying triumph against Italy in 2002 stand out as iconic games.
However, all those Wales teams were unable to deliver beyond those memorable results.
In contrast, the current vintage could have settled for a draw to reach the knockout stages in their first appearance at a European Championship, but instead produced arguably the most complete performance ever from a Wales team.
“I think we have just gone to the next level,” said former Wales striker Dean Saunders, who was part of the 1991 team that beat Germany.
“It is brilliant to top the group and now we move on, we are ready for the next challenge and we will not be scared of anybody – I think there will be a few scared of us, though.”
The stars step up
Such is the influence of Gareth Bale, Wales have often been accused of being a one-man team that is overly reliant on the Real Madrid forward.
Bale and his team-mates have always refuted the claim, albeit with a realistic recognition of his immense importance to the side.
Their dismantling of Russia vindicated the suggestion Wales have more than just Bale. It was a brilliant team display founded on several stellar individual performances, with the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen stepping out of the former Tottenham man’s shadow.
Ramsey has struggled to replicate his Arsenal form for his country, sometimes overzealous in his attempts to take control of games. He is undoubtedly committed, but has occasionally been guilty of over-complication in possession.
However, he delivered what was arguably his greatest international display against Russia, passing with precision and invention and scoring an excellent opening goal.
He was supported brilliantly in midfield by Allen, used infrequently by Liverpool but a passing metronome whose tenacity helped Wales play at a rapid pace to blow Russia away.
Not to be outdone, Bale was at his destructive best, evading Russia’s defenders with embarrassing ease and flicking in a stylish third goal to go top of the Euro 2016 scoring charts.
How Coleman turned it around
There was a moment in the second half when Wales were 3-0 up, nonchalantly passing the ball around to cries of ‘Ole’ from their fans, when the red corner of Stadium de Toulouse called on Chris Coleman to give them a wave.
Naturally, he obliged, offering a stately hand to the crowd as he revelled in the majesty of the occasion.
It was a far cry from the tumult of the beginning of his reign, losing his first four matches to make the worst start of any Wales manager.
“Chris Coleman lost nine of his first 13 games and was under pressure, people calling for his head,” said Saunders.
“He decided to do it his own way and the players love him.”
Coleman’s way has seen him make some bold decisions, such as selecting Sam Vokes against Russia despite the striker starting only one of Wales’ qualifying matches for Euro 2016.
Like many of his recent decisions, it paid off, and proved ‘Coleman’s way’ to be the way forward for Wales.
Playing in their first European Championship, Wales face another step into the unknown as they wonder who they will face next in France.
That it will be staged at Parc de Princes in Paris on Saturday is as much as they know for certain.
Their opponents in the last 16 will be the third-placed team from Group A, C or D – but that could be any of Albania, Northern Ireland, Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, Turkey or Croatia.
Who would Wales like to face? Ask the fans and many might answer that, having made it this far, they do not care.
Certainly, if Wales can scale the heights of their performance against Russia, Coleman believes his side are a match for anyone.
“Whoever’s next is going to be a massive challenge for us,” he said.
“It’s not to say we can’t enjoy tonight – we’re not a country that’s been at tournament after tournament, semi-finals, finals. This is new to us.
“It’s exciting, nerve-wracking at times, a lot of pressure and tension. If we’re maxing out and at our best then we’ve always got a chance.”
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