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Gareth Bale & Aaron Ramsey revive classic Wales combinati

The fervent Turkey-supporting crowd of more than 30,000 were silenced to such an extent that, when the final whistle blew in Baku, all you could hear were the joyous cries of Wales’ players.

Wednesday’s 2-0 victory over Turkey was arguably their best performance and result since Euro 2016, an inspiring campaign which culminated in a first semi-final in Wales’ history.
Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey played leading roles during that golden summer in France and, under the night skies of Euro 2020’s eastern outpost, Wales’ stars sparkled once more.

It has not always been that way. By their high standards, both players have had to endure periods of frustration since the last European Championship, hindered by injuries or a lack of regular action with their clubs.

But on Wednesday evening, Bale and Ramsey summoned the spirit of 2016 to take Wales to within touching distance of the Euro 2020 knockout stages.

The two combined beautifully for Wales’ opening goal, captain Bale lifting a superb pass over the Turkish defence for Ramsey to control and finish with a flourish.

Bale then missed a penalty in the second half but, undeterred by that setback, he set up Connor Roberts to score Wales’ second in added time.

“It’s difficult to compare with 2016 but it’s still a fantastic win,” said Bale.

“We’ll enjoy this, this evening and tomorrow and then we’ll look ahead to the next game.”

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That next encounter will be the Group A finale against leaders and favourites Italy at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.

For Ramsey, the match will have added significance. Playing his club football for Juventus, he will be on familiar ground in Azzurri territory.

There was familiarity too in Baku. His goal against Turkey – the brilliant assist, the confident finish, the moment’s significance – had more than a passing resemblance to the goal he scored to set Wales on their way to an exhilarating 3-0 win over Russia in their final group game in 2016.

Ramsey was named in the team of the tournament that year and, while these are still early days in this summer’s edition, the 30-year-old is proving once again how he can rise to the biggest occasions.

“I felt a bit of relief. I had two chances before to score but that first half today was superb, we really dominated,” he said.

“In the second half we showed great character and I think we thoroughly deserved the win.

“We’ve given ourselves a brilliant opportunity now, we’ve got another big game to go, we are in a good position now.

“I’ve got a few [Juventus] team-mates playing for Italy so it will be nice for me out there, but I’m representing my country now and we will do everything to win that game.”

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‘Players would walk on broken glass for Wales’
It was not only in attack where Ramsey excelled against Turkey. When Mert Muldur bore down on the Wales goal in the second half with the lead still only 1-0, Ramsey appeared out of nowhere to dispossess him with a perfectly executed sliding tackle.

It was a moment which captured Ramsey’s performance: relentless, ubiquitous, decisive.

“I thought Aaron was exceptional, and Gareth showed great character after missing the penalty,” said interim Wales manager Robert Page.

“Everybody wants to talk about those two but I thought the other nine were outstanding.

“We’ve got a lot of players who don’t play regularly for their clubs. What is it? Is it the crest on their chest that makes them raise their game? It must be.

“It’s playing for Wales. It’s powerful and everybody would walk on broken glass to get into this squad.”
What next for Wales?
Wales will need that bloody-minded determination for their next assignment against Italy.

The Azzurri have not lost a competitive game in Rome since 1953, while their victory over Switzerland on Wednesday extended their unbeaten run to 29 matches. They are a force.

It may be that Wales do not need to get anything from their final group fixture. No team with four points or more failed to progress to the second round at Euro 2016.

Page’s men already have four points but will be mindful that Switzerland will be able to match that amount with victory over Turkey on Sunday.

A draw against Italy, therefore, would guarantee Wales’ progress to the last 16 as runners-up in Group A. Victory would secure their passage as group winners.

And such is the strength of their position after beating Turkey, Wales could even lose in Rome and still stand a very good chance of reaching the knockout stages, either as runners-up or as one of the tournament’s four best third-placed teams.

When Bale was asked after the game in Baku if their four points would be enough to progress, he said: “You’d like to think so, but of course we will have to see what happens.

“If you offered us four points at the start I would have bitten your hand off, so we are happy.”

As Bale demonstrated with an impassioned speech to his players in the huddle after the final whistle, happy is an understatement.

With the Azeri and Turkish fans silenced and long gone, it was the Welsh supporters – in their hundreds rather than their usual thousands owing to coronavirus restrictions – and players providing the atmosphere at an empty Baku Olympic Stadium after the final whistle.

“Don’t take me home” was the chant from the stands, a refrain from the magical 2016 campaign. If Bale, Ramsey and the rest can continue in this vein, it could be some time until Wales head home from Euro 2020.

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