Bale Euro 2016 fairytale as Wales beat Russia to top Group B
Real Madrid star becomes the first player to score in all three group games at the Euros since 2004
Russia 0 Wales 3
Gareth Bale hailed Wales' 3-0 demolition of Russia as one of the great moments of his football career as the men in red finished top of Group B to qualify for the last 16 of Euro 2016 above England.
"For the pressure of the game, the way we played, it was probably one of the best team performances I've been involved in," exclaimed Bale, who continued his red-hot form at the Euros by scoring his third goal of the championships and Wales's third on the night.
The Real Madrid star is the tournament's leading scorer and although his importance to Wales can't be overstated, Monday night's win was a magnificent team performance that deservedly saw them progress to the next round as group winners.
Describing the win as an "unbelievable occasion", Bale added: "We've [Wales] had some amazing nights over the last few years but that was really incredible and to top the group as well was an even better feeling, and one that we want to keep having."
Wales' reward for finishing above England, who were held to a goalless draw by Slovakia, is a trip to the Parc des Princes in Paris on Saturday afternoon. Their opponents will depend on how the rest of the group stage unfolds but as BBC Sport explains, it will be a third-place team from either Group A (Albania), Group D (Czech Republic, Croatia or Turkey) or Group C (Germany, Poland or Northern Ireland).
Whoever the opponents, Wales manager Chris Coleman said that they will travel to the French capital with their confidence high. "We have to see who we get next but we play with no fear," he told reporters. "When we play like that, why should we have any fear?"
Wales' performance was all the more impressive given the demoralising manner of their defeat to England last Thursday when a last-gasp goal from Daniel Sturridge earned the Three Lions a 2-1 victory. But instead of letting their heads drop, Wales learned from what had gone wrong.
"We said after the England game that we needed to keep the ball a lot better and we did that tonight," said Bale, whose words were echoed by Coleman: "My players were brave... I mean brave in possession. We were brilliant without the ball against England, but with it, we didn't play like we know we could."
Coleman was brave himself, selecting striker Sam Vokes ahead of the in-form Hal Robson-Kanu, but the change gave Bale free rein to rip apart Russia's ageing defence in a roaming role.
Aaron Ramsey gave Wales the lead on 11 minutes, running on to a sweet pass from Joe Allen and chipping the ball over the advancing Igor Akinfeev. Nine minutes later it was 2-0 as Neil Taylor scored his first international goal - and his first in any match since scoring for Wrexham against Gray's Athletic in 2010 - bundling the ball past Akinfeev at the second attempt.
Bale made it 3-0 midway through the second-half to become the first player to score in all three group games at the European Championship since Holland's Ruud van Nistelrooy and Milan Baros of the Czech Republic in the 2004 tournament.
"It's a dream for all of us," said Bale, refusing to be drawn on his personal exploits. "We said we didn't want to make up the numbers and [wanted] to win the group, we can’t do any more."
Euro 2016: Should England aim to finish second in Group B?
Roy Hodgson's decision to make six changes to the team to face Slovakia in England's final group game at Euro 2016 has raised eyebrows. But would a loss actually help the team's chances of a good run in the knock-out stages?
If England win Group B, they will face the third-placed team from Group A, C or D. The runner-up, however, faces the runner-up in Group F, which could turn out to be an easier assignment. Even if things go badly wrong tonight and the team lose, four points should be enough to see them into the knockout stages.
Winning the group would appear to be the best option, but it could mean facing Croatia, Belgium and then Spain en route to the final - three teams who have been tipped to win the tournament.
Albania have secured third in Group A and the Lions would lose no sleep over them. However, with only three points and a negative goal difference, the Albanians are unlikely to be one of the four teams to progress.
In Group C, Northern Ireland look most likely to finish third, but it could be Poland, if they draw against Germany. If the Ulstermen do the impossible and beat the world champions, then it could be Germany in third.
The most concerning scenario is in Group D. Croatia face Spain in their final group game, while the Czech Republic face Turkey. If Spain and the Czechs win, Croatia will finish third and with four points, are almost certain to go through.
A last-16 clash with Croatia is not what England fans will want. And even if England were to win out, they would likely face Belgium, who should finish second to Italy in Group E, or Portugal, if they can regroup to win Group F, in the quarter-finals. After that, in the semi-finals, Spain could await.
On the other hand, the runners-up in Group B could actually face an easier draw as they must play their equivalents from Group F in the first knock-out stage.
Group F is the least glamorous, featuring misfiring Portugal and rank outsiders Hungary, Austria and Iceland. The likelihood is that either Iceland or Hungary will finish second in that group.
England would fancy their chances against those two sides, but things turn nasty after that. A quarter-final against France looks most likely and then a semi-final showdown against either Germany or Italy.
Finishing third is the worst option, however, as it is likely to mean a clash with Germany or Spain in the last 16.
Slovakia defeat puts Russia on the brink of Euro 2016 exit
Slovakia 2 Russia 1
Slovakia did what England failed to do on Saturday and beat Russia in their Group B clash in Lille.
The win leaves the Three Lions even more in need of a victory against Wales on Thursday. Anything less will leave them lying third in the table behind Slovakia - and with only the Slovaks left to play.
Marek Hamsik inspired his side in the first half and was instrumental in their two goals, although Russia could consider themselves unlucky, as they were on top for much of the half, but were undone by two pieces of magic from the Napoli captain.
The first came after 32 minutes. Slovakia launched a counter-attack and Hamsik sent Vladimir Weiss on his way with a brilliant 45-yard pass. The winger collected the ball in the box and cut back on to his right foot to fire past Igor Akinfeev and make it 1-0.
Hamsik himself scored the second on the stroke of half-time and it was even better than Weiss's effort, collecting the ball from a short corner on the left and creating the space to unleash a right-foot shot that flashed past Akinfeev and went in off the far post.
Russia replaced both central midfielders during the break and new face Denis Gulashkov gave them a sniff when he headed home after 80 minutes. The final stages were all Russia, but Slovakia held on for a draw, leaving Leonid Slutsky's side in danger of an early exit.
Whether that comes for footballing reasons remains to be seen, after more violent clashes involving fans in Lille ahead of the game and, more tellingly from a Uefa standpoint, a flare which went off among Russian fans near the end of the match.
Uefa has already threatened to eject the team from the tournament if there is any more trouble inside the grounds, so the firework could prove significant.
Either way, the result leaves Russia needing to beat Wales in their final match if they are to have a realistic chance of staying in the tournament.
Euro 2016 - Group B preview: Wales set out to derail England
England must be pleased with their draw for Euro 2016, even if they face a grudge match against Wales that could derail their hopes of winning the group.
Aside from that clash, there is little to excite the neutral fan in Group B. England are the only team equipped to go deep into the tournament and even cynical Three Lions fans would be astonished if they failed to finish in the top two.
England: Odds 9-1
Roy Hodgson's side won all ten of their qualification games and were the first side to book their place in France. Nevertheless, there is still scepticism over England's chances. Perhaps it's past experience - England have promised much before tournaments many times, only to flop on the big stage, the last time being the 2014 World Cup.
But this Three Lions team is a "reasonably slick outfit", says The Guardian. They are "effervescent" going forward but vulnerable at the back.
As usual, the manager's reservoir of goodwill is running low. "The FA likes him, the press tolerate him but most supporters are reserving judgment until and unless England show a distinct improvement in France," says the Daily Telegraph.
Russia: Odds 66-1
The ghost of Fabio Capello will hover over the clash with England. Russia "veered toward disaster" under the Italian during qualifying, says ESPN, and he was fired as a result. New coach Leonid Slutsky got them to France, but they are still a work in progress.
"Few hold out much expectation of a long stay at Euro 2016, particularly after a cruel late injury to key playmaker Alan Dzagoev, but there certainly seems scope for a useful build up to their home World Cup in two years’ time," says Eurosport. "A squad that may be entirely composed of domestic-based players certainly know each other’s strengths well."
Wales: Odds 80-1
Having qualified for their first tournament since 1958, Wales will be hoping to prove a point, particularly with England in the same group.
Their hopes rest very much on one man: Gareth Bale, "whose deluge of goals and assists fired them through qualifying", says Eurosport. "His nation will be hoping he can retain that level of inspiration, even if he is bound to be a marked man. Making the second round would be a considerable but wholly possible achievement."
Slovakia: Odds 150-1
"Little is expected of Slovakia in only their second international tournament," says ESPN. "But very little was expected in their first - the 2010 World Cup - and they ended up knocking Italy out and progressing to the Round of 16."
They beat defending champions Spain in qualifying and will hope to spring more surprises in France. Much depends on Marek Hamsik, who, says the Guardian, "makes the national side tick with his tireless running and ability to create and score goals... [although] there is little in the way of attacking threat should he be nullified".
The key players:
Bale is the obvious star. He is unlikely to get many chances to perform on a big international stage during his career so will be eager to take this opportunity, particularly with England in the group.
Hamsik is Slovakia's trump card and he will be just as important to their chances as Bale is to Wales's.
From an English perspective, Dele Alli has the opportunity to establish himself as a genuine star, while Harry Kane will also hope to make an impact. Wayne Rooney is the biggest name in the squad and the last of the so-called "Golden Generation", but his role in the team is unclear, Euro 2016 could prove to be a tortuous international swansong for the Manchester United star.
The key matches:
There's little doubt about the main showdown in the group - it's the clash between England and Wales at 2pm on 16 June in Lens. Wales have never beaten England in a competitive match and this would be some time to do it.
How that game pans out will be informed by the two team's opening matches, which are also crucial. England face Russia on 11 June hoping that they can kick their habit of stating tournaments badly, while Wales's hopes depend on the outcome of their game against Slovakia earlier that day. If they win, they will be in with a great chance of making the last 16 - and will be gunning for their local rivals.
Euro 2016 - Group B: Can Gareth Bale lead Wales to glory?
While English interest has been firmly focused on tomorrow's Euro opener against Russia in Marseille, the Three Lions would do well to remember that next Thursday they face Wales in Lens in their second Group B encounter.
For the Welsh, reaching the European Championships is an achievement in itself, only the second time they've qualified for a major tournament. The first was the 1958 World Cup when they got as far as the quarter-final before a goal from a 17-year-old Pele - his first in a World Cup - knocked them out at the expense of eventual winners Brazil.
Nearly 60 years later Wales are back in the big-time in a squad dominated by Gareth Bale. The Real Madrid winger, reputedly the most expensive footballer in the world following his £90m move from Tottenham two years ago, is the figurehead of a side that opens its European campaign against Slovakia in Bordeaux on Saturday evening.
Inevitably in a squad containing several players from the Championship, the second tier of English football, Bale is expected to carry Wales in the next month. But the man who scored seven of Wales' 11 goals in qualifying for Euro 2016, has dismissed talk of the Welsh being nothing without him. "It's never a one-man team," he said. "There's 11 men on the pitch for a start. For us, it's a squad thing... we all work hard as one unit. We attack as one, we defend as one. When we lose the ball, we all fight back together."
Yet despite his upbeat assessment the fact remains that Wales have lost four of their last five matches, their only victory a 2-0 defeat of tiny Andorra in October.
England in contrast have triumphed in four of their last five games, including victories over Portugal and Germany. Chris Coleman, manager of Wales, exuded an air of pessimism when asked about their chances of beating the English: "I didn’t really want them in our group," he said. "I know Roy Hodgson very well and he’s someone I respect a lot. They won ten out of ten in qualifying and they are always going to be tough."
Then again, Wales have Bale, and as Coleman agreed, with that weapon there's always hope. "His standards set the bar for everybody else to aspire to," explained the Wales boss. "People use the word 'great' lightly, but he is genuinely a great player... we recognise what we have in him and we have to utilise him the best we can."