What a difference a few days can make. England, fresh from a disappointing draw against Russia, squared off against local rivals Wales (who had beaten Slovakia in their first game) in a game that, whilst not exactly must-win, had certainly taken on a greater sense of urgency.
Defeat for England would not have been damming. With four of the six third-placed teams making it through to the knockout stages, England might have lost yesterday and still progressed by beating Slovakia – but it would be far better to remove the uncertainty by finishing in the top two.
The game started with England once again lining up as they had against Russia, and once again England took the game to their opponents, pressing and pushing. Raheem Sterling missed a,glorious early opportunity to give England the lead when he spurned a sitter from a few yards out – not even testing the keeper – and England would continue to press and harry, dominating possession and denying the Welsh any reasonable opportunities at the other end.
Nevertheless, a lack of goals for England meant there was always a chance Wales might grab something, and right on half-time they did – gaining a freekick some 30 yards out, it was swept home by their talisman, Gareth Bale. There’s an argument as to whether Joe Hart should have done better – personally, I think he should be stopping the shot – but at this point it didn’t matter – Wales went into the break 1-0 up and loving every second of it.
For the second half, Roy Hodgson, who had come under fire for his tactical decisions against Russia, opted to be bold. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, who had both been ineffectual, were replaced by Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge, and their impact was almost immediate. Vardy, playing in a major international tournament for the first time, poked the ball home on 56 minutes after a brief scramble in the Welsh penalty area. England had the goal their play merited, but could they go on to get more?
The answer was yes, albeit in classic England fashion this was not to be easy. In injury time, after England had gradually turned up the pressure and Wales sat deeper and deeper (not always wise in football), Daniel Sturridge was England’s hero, getting the ball in the box and slotting it in at the near post, having first jiggled into space.
It was a thoroughly deserved victory that puts England top of the group with Slovakia to play on Monday. For Wales – they still have three points and can qualify by beating Russia.