As Gareth Bale sprinted into Turkey’s box, hitting Zeki Celik’s outstretched leg like an Olympic hurdle, it felt like he was riding the tails of his former summit. For an hour in the heat of Baku, he had bent proceedings as he pleased, his vision wreaking havoc on a labored Turkish defense, one of the many exquisite chips ultimately punished by Aaron Ramsey for bringing Wales to the brink. round of 16.
But on a night when the Wales captain appeared to once again rediscover his forgotten love in the national jersey, the last years of strife replaced by vented enthusiasm, he also breathed the biggest sigh of relief. This breathtaking and nerve-racking victory was built on his dominating influence, but when his penalty inexplicably passed the bar on time, causing the game’s momentum to change like a tidal wave, the Land of Wales was in a panic and left in place for one last captivating and frantic pass.
Yet just as Bale has so often lifted Wales on the back of his own scintillating career, his teammates have also proven once again that they are much more than a figurehead. They fought with blood and thunder, put their bodies on the line and fought until the last second until Bale’s brilliant pass to Connor Roberts, and a second goal, finally appeased the voltage. On a night to savor, in a storm created, stirred and mastered by Bale, it was a victory that encapsulated not only the power of her inspiration, but also the freedom, risk and reward she exudes in a team. which continues to defy the forecasts.
That spirit was clear to see in the celebrations, and great credit also goes to interim manager Robert Page. After the slow chances and the offensive stasis that plagued Wales’ draw against Switzerland, he organized them without hindrance and found himself facing Turkey in what was effectively remote territory. Perhaps the barking cacophony of partisan supporters in Baku, who pushed Turkey forward and stalked every stutter, also benefited Wales. In the midst of the hustle and bustle, Page’s side was able to write its own rhythm. And while Bale and Ramsey were both effectively muted by Switzerland, here they were able to play the perfect violin, a telepathic connection binding them on the pitch, if only for the unnecessary finishing of the latter. .
Perhaps the best chance was Ramsey’s first, when Bale retrieved the ball near the corner flag, waltzed past a lazy tackle with a familiar jump, and sent Ramsey a perfect ball with the outside of his left boot . Juventus’ midfielder’s rigged shot sent Caglar Soyuncu slipping towards the panels, but a turn of the eyes failed to cheat Ugurgan Cakir, who made a formidable low save at his near post.
The beauty of playing without inhibition, however, is that the pit never dries up. As the first half progressed, Bale became more and more his old shadow, shining in the golden Wales jersey, giving himself chances of dirt. Nominally starting out on the wing, he drifted deep into midfield, begging for the ball at his feet, from which time seemed to slow down around him. While the 31-year-old is still ridiculed as a ‘golfer’ in Madrid, he’s been able to throw shots into space almost at will, with Ramsey’s second chance no less golden. As Kieffer Moore shoved and harassed Turkish defenders, Ramsey sprinted past them again unmarked. Bale’s pass was so exquisite that if Ramsey had realized the lack of a challenge nearby, he would have taken a touch and composed, rather than throwing his shot over the bar in a hurry.
After the breakthrough finally took place, with Ramsey cushioning Bale’s magnificent pass to his chest and this time applying a finish for a goal that will surely be one of the tournament’s best, Bale’s missed penalty then inevitably led to a landslide of Turkish chances. But for all the freedom Page offered his stars, there was also real discipline, which deserves a lot of the credit. Daniel James rushed forward urgently, his speed doing a light job for Celik, a full-fledged Ligue 1-winning full-back. Joe Morrell cleared the line. Connor Roberts and Ben Davies rushed into tackles, their high pressure forcing Turkey into the center channel, where they were greeted by the imposing blockade from Joe Rodon and Chris Mepham. It’s hard to say Wales were without weaknesses, with set-piece fragility almost cruelly exposed before Danny Ward made several fine interventions. But just as Bale had raised the curtain, Wales rose in unison with all they could muster, with each player on the pitch making their own key contribution.
They may still not be ranked as true contenders to lift the crown at Wembley next month, but it was a performance that once again captured hearts and minds, as well as the ups and downs. Bale’s failure may have left Wales in an abyss, but his genius also left Turkey with a mountain to climb. It wasn’t a man’s night – and Bale isn’t the character who ever made it so – but it was at least another form of personal vindication. And for Wales, it was the fair reward for their bravery. Their biggest star may be getting old, but their spirits and hope haven’t dimmed at all. In fact, based on the testimony tonight, it’s only getting stronger.