Evans shows how Welsh wizard can be shackled

Northern Ireland defender Jonny Evans (left) keeping a watchful eye on Wales' Gareth Bale. Evans had his opponent in his pocket for most of the game, matching him for craft and graft until the decisive cross leading to the goal.
Northern Ireland defender Jonny Evans (left) keeping a watchful eye on Wales' Gareth Bale. Evans had his opponent in his pocket for most of the game, matching him for craft and graft until the decisive cross leading to the goal. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • It was inevitable that when the job of stopping Gareth Bale was handed out, it went to the most intelligent and accomplished footballer on the Northern Ireland team, Jonny Evans, and that his younger brother Corry would get involved as well.

From the first time Bale got the ball down the right-hand side, there were three Northern Ireland players around him, but Evans was clearly antagonist-in-chief.

Whenever the ball was worked to the Wales talisman, Evans was right on him and when Bale dropped a little bit deeper, Evans Jr was snapping at his heels.

At times, the Bale treatment went over the top, with Northern Ireland adapting an Italian-style approach towards stopping the Real Madrid forward, with first one player fouling him and then another.

It was Evans Sr who alone seemed to be able to keep the world's most expensive footballer at bay by using his footballing intelligence rather than excessive force.

The defender also had the presence of mind to put his foot on the ball and insist that his team-mates keep playing football when the atmosphere threatened to get a little too hot and heavy at times.

Evans himself has not always been such a commanding figure for his country. He freely admits that playing for Northern Ireland before Michael O'Neill took over was a "bit of a drag" and that he felt he was wasting his time.

It has probably helped that he moved from Manchester United to West Bromwich Albion last year at a knockdown price of £6 million (S$11.09 million).

The move has given Evans, 28, more time to get his international career in order and he has been a huge influence on the squad in this tournament.

No doubt the parents of the Evans brothers, Jackie and Dawn, were watching proudly in the stands at the Parc des Princes.

They gave up their life in Belfast to move to Manchester more than 10 years ago when their two sons were offered terms by Manchester United.

For all his loyalty to his sons, Jackie would have appreciated how Bale never stopped showing the way despite the rough treatment and eventually got the breakthrough for Wales by switching wings.

Perhaps O'Neill would argue that Bale needed to be fouled again when he linked brilliantly with Aaron Ramsey down the left and then sent over a wicked low cross which Gareth McAuley could only turn into his own net.

In the end, Bale got the better of Evans, but it was a great battle and you would fancy Evans against virtually any other footballer as he matures into the outstanding defender he always threatened to be.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2016, with the headline 'Evans shows how Welsh wizard can be shackled'. Print Edition | Subscribe