It's amazing what a couple of substitutions can do for you. Down and out of ideas, England were staring at a defeat to their neighbours Wales in this big Euro 2016 derby, after Gareth Bale, who else, gave his team the lead in the first half. Then, Roy Hodgson made a couple of big changes, taking the completely ineffective Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane off to bring on Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy.
The England supporters, who had booed the team off the pitch at halftime, met those changes with a huge roar of approval. And, that change seemed to gee up the England players too. Suddenly there was more purpose to the possession, more pace in the attacks and the general feeling that something was going to come out of those chances.
It did too, with Vardy, who was in contention to be included from the start, doing the fox in the box business to a T, jumping on a misjudged header from Wales captain Ashley Williams to hook the ball past Wayne Hennessey. Then, with the match into the second minute of stoppage time, right around the time England conceded the goal against Russia, Sturridge popped up with a stunning winner. A low pass into the box to Vardy, a pass from the striker to Dele Alli, another pass back to Sturridge, a forced toe-poke into the near post, which went in off the side of Wayne Hennessey's foot and England were in dreamland.
The first goal of the game came in the 42nd minute and from that left boot of Bale, who struck his second goal in as many games off a freekick. This one was a lot deeper than the one he scored from against Slovakia, though, and while the goalkeeper's positioning was in question for that first goal, there was no doubt that the second was Joe Hart's mistake. Bale went for the strike over the wall this time, from all of 40 yards, with the ball dipping right at the end as Hart's left hand proved not to be strong enough to keep the ball out from creeping in. It was a save Hart should have made, even if Bale's ability in these freekicks are to be marvelled at.
Before that goal, though, it was all England, in terms of possession, but very little in terms of chances created. The one big opportunity of the first half for the Three Lions came in the seventh minute, ironically off a counterattack. Kane passed the ball onto Adam Lallana, who had another bright start to the game before fading completely, down the right to cross perfectly onto the path of Sterling. All the Manchester City forward had to do was slot the ball in from six yards, but the end product problem of his came to the fore and the ball went high and wide.
Wales were more than happy to let England have the ball, while looking to spring on the counter. Bale made a couple of his powerful runs, but was largely quiet until that first goal, with Aaron Ramsey the outstanding Welsh player in the first half -- not for his offensive prowess, but for his defensive one. Ramsey was like a Welsh terrier in the first 45, and for a considerable period of time after that as well, nipping at the English players, every time they had the ball and generally highlighting the fight that Wales showed in this match, even if it all came to nought in the end.