BORDEAUX, June 11, (AFP): Substitute Hal Robson-Kanu scored a joyously celebrated 81st-minute winner as Wales marked their major tournament return by edging Slovakia 2-1 in Saturday’s Euro 2016 opener in Bordeaux.
Playing their first game at a major championship since the 1958 World Cup, Wales took a 10th-minute lead courtesy of Gareth Bale’s fine free-kick, only for Slovakia substitute Ondrej Duda to equalise.
But with nine minutes remaining, Robson-Kanu, released by Reading at the end of the season, scuffed a shot past Matus Kozacik to send Chris Coleman’s side striding towards the last 16.
His strike ended Wales’s four-game winless run and tees the European Championship debutants up perfectly for Thursday’s hotly anticipated second Group B fixture against neighbours England in Lens.
Jan Kozak’s Slovakia, previously unbeaten in eight games, tackle Russia in Lille on Wednesday knowing that a second defeat could be fatal.
The match at the elegant Stadium Bordeaux had been billed in some quarters as a battle between Real Madrid star Bale and Marek Hamsik, and the Slovakia playmaker was the first of the pair to catch the eye.
After robbing Bale, he surged past Ashley Williams, David Edwards and James Chester before drilling a left-foot shot past goalkeeper Danny Ward, making his first start in place of the injured Wayne Hennessey, but Ben Davies slid in almost miraculously to divert the ball behind for a corner.
When Bale’s moment arrived 10 minutes in, there was to be no such reprieve for Slovakia.
Presented with a free-kick 30 yards from goal, he slammed the ball over the wall and as Kozacik moved to his left, it darted in the other direction and plunged low into the net.
Bale tore down the touchline in celebration of his 20th Wales goal, which came almost 10 years after he opened his international account with a free-kick against the same opposition.
“Are you watching England?” crowed the Wales fans, before honouring former manager Gary Speed, who took his own life in November 2011, with a cry of “There’s only Gary Speed!”
Boos emanated from the red-clad hordes in the Wales end moments later, however, as a replay on the stadium’s big screens revealed that Martin Skrtel had escaped punishment after catching Jonny Williams in the throat with his elbow, barely six feet from one of the goal-line officials.
The teams exchanged chances early in the second half — Robert Mak drilling over, Bale sending Kozacik scrambling with a downward header — before a double substitution brought Slovakia back into the game.
Slovakia coach Kozak sent on Adam Nemec and Duda, with Michal Duris and Patrik Hrovosky giving way, and within a minute Duda had scored, arrowing a shot past Ward’s left hand from Mak’s right-wing cut-back.
It made him the first player to score past Wales at a major tournament since a 17-year-old Pele at the 1958 World Cup.
Hamsik and Mak threatened before Coleman made a double change of his own, sending on Joe Ledley, 35 days after he fractured a fibula, and Robson-Kanu, who was to make a major impact.
After crossing for Aaron Ramsey to head over, the roles were reversed to decisive effect, the Arsenal man skipping past Skrtel and Robson-Kanu steering the ball home.
There was a late scare when Nemec wobbled the post with a header, but Wales survived.
Switzerland 1, Albania 0
Lens, Fabien Schaer’s powerful header gave Switzerland a narrow 1-0 win over 10-man Albania on the second day of the European Championship finals,
The Group A match, in the spotlight with brothers Granit and Taulant Xhaka playing for opposing sides, was decided by the sending off of Albania captain Lorik Cana.
The Albanian underdogs were continually scrambling to get back into the game while Switzerland, who now lead the group with France, never took firm control.
After just five minutes, Hoffenheim centre back Schaer rose above the Albanian defence to head in from a corner by Xherdan Shaqiri.
The 1.86 metre (6ft 2in) defender makes a habit of scoring for the national side, with five goals in 19 appearances now.
He was also a rock in defence and was booked in the 12th minute for chopping down Emir Lenjani.
Albania had their chances. Taulant Xhaka, the elder of the Kosovo-origin brothers, was put clear in the 26th minute but shot well over the top.
Referee Carlos Velasco Carballo had a busy time dishing out six yellow cards and a red.
He showed a first yellow card to Cana in the 13th minute for sliding in on Haris Seferovic.
Former Marseille player Cana was again in trouble in the 36th minute.
Chasing Seferovic, Cana fell and headed the ball away on the edge of the penalty area and when it bounced flicked it away with his hands.
His protests had no effect. Carballo produced a second yellow and a red.
Albania had several desperate moments, Ergys Kace nearly ripped the shorts off Valon Behrami and then tripped him. That meant another yellow.
Switzerland, who next play Romania on Wednesday, also had their chances but desperate defence and poor finishing meant there were no more goals.
Seferovic was put clear through but his shot went off keeper Berisha. The Swiss player kicked post in frustration and anger that summed up the match.