The great Wales adventure at Euro 2016 came to a disappointing end as they were beaten in the semi-final by Portugal in Lyon.
Chris Coleman’s side entered the biggest game in Welsh football history – at their first major tournament since 1958 – carried by a wave of emotion and optimism after their 3-1 win against Belgium in the quarter-final.
The big threat was always going to be Cristiano Ronaldo – and so it proved as his magnificent header broke the deadlock after 50 minutes.
Three minutes later, his shot was diverted past Wayne Hennessy in the Wales goal by former Manchester United team-mate Nani.
Wales sorely missed the energy and authority of suspended midfielder Aaron Ramsey – and with Ronaldo overshadowing Real Madrid team-mate Gareth Bale in this game’s crucial battle, a journey that has made a country proud finally reached its conclusion.
Portugal will now face hosts France or 2014 World Cup winners Germany in Sunday’s final at the Stade de France final in Paris.
The Wales fans have been magnificent at Euro 2016, entering into the spirit of a patchy tournament with the same passion and positive thinking that has epitomised Coleman’s squad.
And as defeat became increasingly inevitable on a steamy night in Lyon, they showed their appreciation for what they have seen in these recent weeks with rousing songs and a splash of colour.
Wales may have lost but the manner in which they approached Euro 2016 was exemplary and has provided memories that will last a lifetime, especially those second-half goals from Hal Robson-Kanu and Sam Vokes that sank Belgium.
They took the tournament head-on, perhaps only wavering when gripped by the occasion against England in their Group B contest Lens, even then only losing to Daniel Sturridge’s injury-time winner.
The confidence Wales can take away from France will provide the ideal platform for their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, which starts against Moldova in Cardiff in September.
It was the great personal confrontation of this Euro 2016 semi-final – the meeting of the two Real Madrid superstars.
Sadly for Wales, it was Ronaldo who came out on top, although this is no reflection on Bale, who has been a shining light on and off the pitch in France. He was tireless in Lyon and ends the tournament with his reputation enhanced as an international.
Bale was dangerous in the first half here, especially with one dangerous run and cross and shot clutched by Rui Patricio. But once Wales had suffered those two blows early in the second half, it was beyond even his powers to be the catalyst for a comeback.
Ronaldo had a quiet first 45 minutes but, as the greats do, he changed the emphasis of game with a towering header that was a triumph of power, technique and ability that flashed past Hennessey.
Now he has the chance to crown his career with the honour that has always escaped him, namely leading Portugal to victory in a major tournament.
Wales were robbed of their dreams of reaching the Euro 2016 final when they conceded those two goals in three minutes at the start of the second half – and it was then that it looked like their exertions in reaching the last four had finally caught up with them.
The demoralising effect of those two goals from Ronaldo and Nani had a visible impact on Coleman’s team.
Wales never looked likely to launch a comeback. Indeed, it was Portugal who threatened to add more goals, with Ronaldo firing a blistering free-kick just over as well as having other chances.
Wales looked tired and short of ideas. There is no shame in that and they can take their leave from Euro 2016 with heads held high.
Wales boss Coleman joined his squad and staff in a corner of Stade de Lyon to take the acclaim of thousands of their supporters.
The 46-year-old has rebuilt his own reputation, scarred by bad experiences at Real Sociedad, Coventry City and Larissa in Greece after showing such promise at Fulham.
Coleman took the Welsh job in tragic circumstances in January 2012, following the death of his friend and predecessor Gary Speed, and soon answered any questions about his credentials by guiding them to Euro 2016.
Here, in contrast to the shambles played out by England, Wales looked motivated, organised and with a clear plan.
This may the end of one momentous journey but it could be the start of another.
The game in numbers
- Cristiano Ronaldo is the first player to play in three Euro semi-finals (2004, 2012, 2016).
- Ronaldo has appeared in 20 European Championship games, three more than any other player (Gianluigi Buffon and Bastian Schweinsteiger on 17).
- Ronaldo equalled Michel Platini’s record of nine Euros goals. Five of them have been headers.
- This is only Portugal’s second semi-final victory in a major tournament (out of seven) and their first on foreign soil.
- This was Portugal’s first win at Euro 2016 in normal time.
- Wales failed to score for the first time in their last six games.
- Since the start of 2015, Wales have failed to win any of their four games without Aaron Ramsey (D1 L3).