England leave it late to beat Wales
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Back in 1963, Gene Pitney sang about being 24 Hours From Tulsa. On Thursday night at the Stade Bollaert in Lens, the England manager Roy Hodgson appeared to be 45 minutes from disaster.
His England side were trailing 1-0 against Wales. They were scurrying around looking for openings but could not breach the Welsh rearguard.
At half-time, Hodgson took drastic measures. He removed Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling and brought on Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy.
Within 11 minutes Vardy had cancelled out Gareth Bale’s opener for Wales. And in second-half stoppage time, Sturridge had furnished the winner.
“When you’ve been in football a long time you find it very hard to remember all the good substitutions you’ve made,” said Hodgson after the 2-1 victory. He contented himself with describing the injection of Vardy and Sturridge as his best double substitution at Euro 2016. "There've only been two games," he quipped.
Returning to sober analysis, the 68-year-old added: “Substitutions are going to play a major part in this tournament. The games come thick and fast. Each team has 23 players and in those 23 players there’ll be a lot of players who, when they’re not selected, will feel hard done by and feel that maybe that they should have been selected. I think substitutions will be a feature of the tournament.”
England had the majority of the possession against Wales with skipper Wayne Rooney running the show in midfield. He schemed and displayed all his wiles. Deft angled passes, scything cross field balls and a few rumbustuous runs. Kyle Walker was luminous down the right. But there were too many hopeful lofted balls from others, Eric Dier was particularly guilty. It was the scourge of the match.
Wales coach Chris Coleman lamented his side’s poor fortune at conceding during stoppage time. But they had dug their own grave. “I think the occasion got to us," said Coleman. " We can play better. We were a little rushed and rather than keeping the ball more, we gave it back to England too many times and they kept possession. Bale was too isolated.”
Coupled with Slovakia’s 2-1 win over Russia on Wednesday, Group B is wide open. England lead with four points, Wales are second on three points, the same tally as Slovakia who they edge due to a better head-to-head record. Russia prop up the pool with one point.
In the final round of games on Monday Russia play Wales in Toulouse while in St Etienne, England take on Slovakia. A draw will provide a place in the last 16 for England. Wales will guarantee their passage with victory.
“We’re going into that last game against Russia and it is down to us," said Coleman. "We’re not asking for any favours, we’ve never done that. We’ve got to go and take care of business ourselves. We’ve got to show a bit of mettle and a bit of steel. We’re down to the last game and we have got a chance and we’ve got to take it.”