After waiting 58 years to return to a major tournament, Wales made up for lost time with a courageous victory that gets their Euro 2016 campaign off to the best possible start. While the sight of Gareth Bale’s name on the scoresheet is almost a foregone conclusion, the same cannot be said for Hal Robson-Kanu, who could hardly have picked a better moment to register his third international goal.
That Joe Ledley, who broke his leg five weeks ago to the day, was involved in the buildup only added to the sense of satisfaction for Wales at the final whistle. It was Ledley’s measured pass, not long after he had come off the bench, that picked out Aaron Ramsey, who was stumbling as he cut inside Martin Skrtel. The ball ran through to Robson-Kanu, another substitute, and with one swing of the left boot, aided by a touch of good fortune – the striker’s shot slipped through the legs of the covering Jan Durica – Wales were in dreamland.
It was a thrilling game and there was still time for Adam Nemec to head against the upright, much to the relief of Danny Ward, the Wales goalkeeper who was drafted into the team to make his first start for his country after Wayne Hennessey was forced to pull out after suffering with a back spasm. The 22-year-old Ward can be proud of his performance – he had no chance with Ondrej Duda’s second-half equaliser after Bale had put Wales ahead – and Chris Coleman and his players can now look forward to taking on England in Lens on Thursday with the pressure off.
Bale’s opening goal was a beauty. There was a sense of inevitability about what was going to happen from the moment Jonny Williams was brought down by Patrik Hrosovsky 30 yards from goal and Bale stood over the ball. Matus Kozacik, the Slovakia goalkeeper, lined up his wall but made the fatal mistake of taking a step to his left just as Bale ran up, leaving a gaping hole on the other side of the goal. Bale, with a dipping free-kick, thumped the ball into that area and, although it was not in the corner, Kozacik had too much ground to make up to get across and try and make a save.
The goal had a calming effect on Coleman’s side, who had looked a little nervous in the early stages and were fortunate not to concede inside three minutes following a wonderful piece of play from the graceful Marek Hamsik, who was by far the most influential player in the Slovakia side.
Hamsik dispossessed Bale and slalomed his way through the Wales defence, a lovely dummy embarrassing Ashley Williams and taking David Edwards out of the game as well. The Napoli midfielder then glided past James Chester with ease and slipped a left-footed shot beyond Ward, who had tried to narrow angle, only for Ben Davies, with a superb piece of defending, to get back and clear.
After surviving that scare Wales, set up in a 3-4-2-1 formation, grew in confidence and began to move the ball around with more purpose. Williams, who started alongside Ramsey as one of two No10s, was lively and should have been awarded a penalty in the 32nd minute in an incident that somehow escaped the attention of the referee and his additional assistant behind the goal.
Running back towards his own goal in the penalty area, Martin Skrtel was trying to shepherd the ball out of play and swung his right arm in the face of the Wales midfielder, catching him on the chin with his elbow, to prevent him from getting there first. On another day it could have been a straight red card for the Liverpool defender and Wales were entitled to feel aggrieved that they also missed out on the chance to double their lead from the spot.
All the while the Wales supporters – a sea of red at one end of the stadium and dotted all round this impressive arena – continued to make themselves heard as they went through their full repertoire of songs, including an emotional tribute to the late Gary Speed, whose contribution to this team will never be forgotten.
It was an open, freeflowing match and Slovakia, who finished the first half strongly, continued to look dangerous. Skrtel came within inches of getting to Hamsik’s inswinging cross from the right, and early in the second half Robert Mak flashed a left-footed drive over the bar. At the other end Bale, towering above Peter Pekarik, met Joe Allen’s cross with a powerful downward header that forced Kozacik into a full-stretch save.
Yet that was a rare Wales attack in a 20-minute period after the restart where Slovakia were in control of the game. Hamsik was finding pockets of space and making Slovakia tick, to the point that it felt like a matter of time before they scored.
And so it proved in the 61st minute, when Jan Kozak’s double substitution brought instant reward. Mak, lively on the right, shrugged off Ramsey too easily and with a lovely cut-back picked out Duda, who made the most of the time and space he was given to beat Ward with a low shot. Ramsey, with a near post header, squandered a chance to restore Wales’s lead before Robson-Kanu’s thrilling late winner.