Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey took the glory, but Wales would not be through to face Denmark in the Euro 2020 last-16 stage on Saturday without the saves of Danny Ward.
On Saturday, Ward will line up for Robert Page’s side, with the man who is keeping him out of the Leicester City team, Kasper Schmeichel, in the Denmark goal.
The 28-year-old Wales shot-stopper made 13 saves across his team’s three group games, which is a total that was only bettered by Finland’s Lukas Hradecky (15) and Turkey’s Ugurcan Cakir (18).
He made on average 6.5 saves per goal conceded, the best record of all goalkeepers who were beaten at least once (Gianluigi Donnarumma and Jordan Pickford both kept three clean sheets), with Wales shipping just twice in three games.
That tight defensive record came despite Wales having an expected goals against (xGA) total of 5.47, and it meant Wales had the largest differential (3.47) between their goals-against tally and their xGA. Opta tallies expected goals figures on a formula that looks at variables including the type of assist, angle of the shot and its distance.
Bale and Ramsey unpicked Turkey to impressive effect in the second group game, but Ward’s overall importance cannot be overestimated.
Now Ward and Schmeichel will be on show in Amsterdam in the opening knockout game, with Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers sure to be taking an interest.
Ward said this week: “Kasper’s a good goalie and Denmark are a good team. It’s going to be tough, you have to respect people, but we’ve got to believe in what we want to do. We fancy ourselves against anyone.”
Bale, stuck in a 14-game goal drought for his country, may fancy facing Schmeichel, having scored twice against him when Tottenham beat Leicester 4-2 on the final day of the Premier League season.
Denmark have come through a testing first fortnight in the tournament, enduring the horror of seeing Christian Eriksen suffer a cardiac arrest in their opening game against Finland.
Eriksen’s steady recovery – to the point where he has been able to leave hospital – has been uplifting, and coach Kasper Hjulmand is now able to focus firmly on matters on the pitch, with an emotional 4-1 win over Russia seeing the Danes through to this stage.
Hjulmand says too much emphasis has been placed on who starts games for the Danes, insisting their squad depth is a major plus point.
“We have been so strong in the second half in many matches,” Hjulmand told UEFA.com. “We have been so strong in the last 20 minutes of every match. And it’s just as important who is on the field when the match ends as who starts.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Wales – Aaron Ramsey
Driving runs from midfield behind opposition lines are such a strength of Ramsey’s game, and Denmark will be wary of the Juventus man. Indeed, he has had 16 of Wales’ 97 shot attempts across their Euro 2016 and Euro 2020 campaigns to date, beaten only by Bale’s 33.
Denmark – Mikkel Damsgaard
The Sampdoria youngster shot into the spotlight with his supreme strike against Russia. Damsgaard has been directly involved in six goals in his five appearances for Denmark in all competitions, scoring three and assisting three. The goal against Russia made him Denmark’s youngest goalscorer in a World Cup or European Championship, at the age of 20 years and 353 days.
KEY OPTA FACTS
– None of the 10 previous meetings between Wales and Denmark in all competitions have finished level, with Wales winning four to Denmark’s six. This is the first meeting between the sides since November 2018, with Denmark winning 2-1 in a Nations League match on that occasion.
– Denmark have won each of their last three competitive meetings with Wales in a run stretching back to June 1999. This is the first meeting between the sides in a major tournament.
– Denmark became the first team in European Championship history to reach the knockout stages of the competition having lost their first two group games.
– Wales have only lost two of their last 16 competitive matches in all competitions, although those two defeats have arrived in their last five games, including last time out against Italy. They have not suffered consecutive competitive defeats since June 2019.
– Denmark recorded 59 shots in the group stages, with the average of 19.7 shots per game their highest on record in a major tournament (Euros and World Cup).
– Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg has three assists in his three games so far at Euro 2020, with no Denmark player recording more at a single edition of a World Cup or European Championship before.
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