Wales dominated Russia to seal their progression to the Euro 2016 knockout stages as Group B winners with a stunning 3-0 victory in Toulouse.
Showing no signs of a hangover from their last-gasp 2-1 defeat to England in Lens on Thursday, Chris Coleman’s side controlled the game from start to finish and took the lead through a neat Aaron Ramsey finish.
Neil Taylor had Wales two up by the 20th minute, with Leonid Slutsky’s men limited to an Artem Dzyuba strike out of nothing that forced Wayne Hennessey into a good save.
And Gareth Bale, a scorer in each of Wales’ opening two matches, continued his hot streak to round off the result, beating the beleaguered Igor Akinfeev after 67 minutes.
Wales will now face the third-placed side from Group A, C or D in the last 16 in Paris on Saturday after pipping England to top spot.
For Wales, the result also represents a measure of revenge for their Euro 2004 play-off defeat at the hands of Russia, who are now left to reflect on a campaign blighted by off-field issues and poor performances, finishing fourth with just a point to their name.
Roman Shirokov returned to the Russian line-up as captain in one of four changes, but it was Wales who applied the early pressure, and Ramsey broke the deadlock in the 11th minute.
An intercepted Russian pass was seized upon by Joe Allen, who took out four defenders with a tremendous throughball that Ramsey coolly dinked over Akinfeev.
With the heartbreak of England’s late comeback still fresh in their minds, Wales were determined not to rest on their laurels and Taylor’s second gave them a welcome cushion.
Found in acres of space down the left by Bale, Taylor’s first attempt was blocked by Akinfeev.
However, the ball fell back at the feet of the Swansea City left-back, who made no mistake with his second bite at the cherry, scoring his first senior goal since he netted for Wrexham at Grays in 2010.
Sam Vokes’ inclusion in place of Hal Robson-Kanu allowed Bale to play a deeper role and the Real Madrid attacker was more involved in Wales’ general play than he had been against Slovakia or England, but Dzyuba caused alarm when he forced Hennessey to push behind with Russia’s first real chance.
Vokes then had a glorious opportunity to make it 3-0 when he fired straight at Akinfeev from close range, before Bale saw appeals for a penalty turned down after tumbling under the challenge of Sergei Ignashevich.
Wales were playing with real confidence, Ramsey and Bale testing Akinfeev with powerful drives from distance, and the feeling around the Russia squad was perhaps summed up when Shirokov struggled to find a willing recipient of the captain’s armband when he was replaced seven minutes into the second half.
And Bale gave the scoreline a deserved convincing gloss when he prodded the ball beyond Akinfeev with the outside of his left boot after getting on the end of a Ramsey ball into the box.
Bale became the first player since Milan Baros and Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2004 to score in the opening three matches of a European Championship and will have no intention of slowing down as Wales embark on their knockout campaign.
Key Opta stats:
– Gareth Bale is now Wales’ top-scorer in major finals (3 goals), netting one more than Ivor Allchurch (2, all in the 1958 World Cup).
– Neil Taylor’s goal was his first in either senior international football or the English top-four tiers.
– Bale is the first player to score in three consecutive games in a EURO finals tournament since Milan Baros (4) in 2004.
– Taylor’s goal was also the first competitive Welsh goal which didn’t involve either Gareth Bale or Aaron Ramsey (scoring or assisting) since David Cotterill v Cyprus in October 2014.
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