Wales crowned their return to continental competition after a 58-year absence Saturday, beating Slovakia 2-1 in a buoyant game. Both sides came with the intent to play on the front foot, and the game benefitted from their proactiveness. Wales haven't played in a major tournament since World Cup 1958, and this tournament is better for their presence after all these years.
Gareth Bale is synonymous with this new Welsh revolution, and of course, the Real Madrid man was at the heart of nearly everything the Dragons did, jabbing home an impossibly spun free kick after just 10 minutes, and bursting forward at every single opportunity to torment Liverpool center back Martin Skrtel and his Slovakian teammates.
Napoli captain Marek Hamsik did his best to drag Slovakia forward, growing more into the game as he moved into his favored role deeper in the heart of midfield where he could properly dictate play for the Falcons. His infectious energy spread through the entire team, with Vladimir Weiss and Juraj Kucka bright spots in a Slovakia unit that can take solace in the fact that at least they entertained. They deservedly fought back to equalize through Kucka before Wales' dogged determination saw them grab a deserved winner.
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Wales' winner came courtesy of the man blessed with the best (or at least the most Star Wars-themed) name in the tournament, Hal Robson-Kanu, 10 minutes after entering the match. The man he replaced, Jonathan Williams, earned his rest after a bruising 71 minutes, doing well to flit about and create havoc in the Slovakian defense. Robson-Kanu honored his memory well, nearly setting up newly blond Aaron Ramsey, who seemed more preoccupied with his role in the latest kidnapping of Liam Neeson's daughter than his duties in front of goal. Ramsey put in his normal workmanlike performance, and the one sparkling moment of inspiration from the Arsenal man tonight ended in Robson-Kanu's winner. Ramsey got a well-deserved rest after 87 minutes, and he will surely relish Wale's next test against England's Tottenham-heavy midfield.
Wales spent nearly six decades out of competitive football, and upon their return, they showed exactly why, despite the expanded Euro 2016 field, they deserve to be competing with the continent's best. A spirited performance against a competent Slovakia will be a huge boost for the Dragons, and they will be buzzing dangerously as they prepare to take on England, in the biggest match of their lives.
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