There were question marks over both Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey heading into Euro 2020. Was Bale still the inspirational force he was in 2016? Was Ramsey going to be fit enough to warrant his spot in the Wales team? Against Turkey on Wednesday, they laughed in the face of their doubters by putting in outstanding performances to help Wales to a brilliant 2-0 victory.
Both had quiet matches in Wales' opening 1-1 draw with Switzerland, but on a humid Tuesday evening in Baku, Azerbaijan, they combined seamlessly for Wales' first-half goal and were outstanding in managing the tempo of the match as Rob Page's men closed out a key win which all but books Wales' spot in the knockout stages.
Close your eyes, and it was just like watching the Wales from 2016 again -- a group punching above their weight, downing one of the pre-tournament dark horses and playing with enjoyment, tempo, ambition and intensity. Ramsey's strike came just four days short of the five-year anniversary of his neat, chipped goal against Russia which helped them on their path through to the semifinals.
This was a wonderful match, which finally boiled over in the final throes of the game when Wales left-back Ben Davies and Turkey striker Burak Yilmaz had an altercation which led to a melee of pushing and shoving. Turkey had chances to equalise, but Wales' defence stood firm. There will be few thoughts given to Bale's missed penalty on the hour mark, but instead his Man of the Match performance will be remembered for his two wonderful assists.
Having drawn their opener 1-1 with Switzerland, Wales were teetering on 'must-win' territory for this game against Turkey. And Bale and Ramsey played that way, having the game on a piece of string right through to the end where Bale teed up Connor Roberts to make it 2-0 in added time.
"I'm delighted with the win, we fought hard, we worked our socks off, like we always do," Bale said post-match. "I missed the pen, but I think I showed good character to help the team keep going. We needed that victory more than anything and the second goal at the end was the icing on the cake."
Ramsey's opener finally came in the 42nd minute, but they'd already teased Turkey with that move earlier in the match. Bale played deeper, and more central than he did against Switzerland, and was constantly looking for opportunity through, over and under the Turkey backline.
The Juventus midfielder had already missed two great chances before taking his third. The first saw him miss from close range as Caglar Soyuncu forced him to aim for the near post. For Ramsey's second opportunity, Bale dropped deep -- just like he'd do later -- took a couple of touches and then pinged a neat pass through the space in Turkey's defence to Ramsey. The Juventus man, though, took an awkward touch, and then blazed over. He looked anxiously towards the linesman, but as the flag stayed down, he fell to his knees in regret.
But Bale and Ramsey were unbowed and just three minutes prior to half-time, they gave it another shot. This time they executed it to perfection -- Bale was slightly deeper than before, near the centre circle, but again knew where Ramsey would be. The ball was pinpoint as it bisected the defence, Ramsey's chest control perfect and the finish neatly put past the onrushing Ugurcan Cakir and into the corner of the net.
"I had two opportunities before that to score but I thought we created some great opportunities and dominated the play," Ramsey said. "We've built our success on working hard for each other."
Ramsey managed 84 minutes until he was replaced by Harry Wilson, while Bale saw the game out and attacked through to the end. With the clock ticking down, Wales had a corner in the 95th minute, and instead of keeping the ball in the corner, Bale attacked Turkey's weary defence and teed up Roberts for a close-range finish.
"He'd [Ramsey] gone in a few times and we've always linked up well all the time since our early days," Bale said afterwards.
They've both endured a tough couple of years with their clubs. Ramsey struggled this past season with Juventus due to a spate of injuries. He sought to address this by bringing in his own army of personal trainers ahead of the Euros and they have seemingly got him back to his best. Meanwhile, Bale spent last season on loan at Spurs and was underused by Jose Mourinho but then hit his top form under Ryan Mason, scoring five in his last five Premier League matches.
But while they've had awkward seasons, what's abundantly clear is how much they love playing for Wales and how the environment brings out the best in them. Bale's captaincy style is more through leading by example, rather than motivational snippets. Pre-tournament he was doing his best to dodge questions over his long-term club future.
His contract is up with Real Madrid in June 2022, while there were even suggestions he was contemplating retirement. The latter was shot down swiftly by Bale's representatives to ESPN, and while Bale said at the end of the campaign with Tottenham the last thing he wanted to do was "cause chaos" revealing his ideal plans for next season, he knows he's going to be centre of attention wherever he goes.
But he is in his comfort zone with Wales and we get to enjoy a confident and settled Bale. Pre-match he called on his Wales side to be "ruthless" against Turkey, and to silence the partisan crowd -- it was a man confident in his own skin. His vision, weight of passing and general positioning was spot on against Turkey, bar the penalty which he scooped over after 60 minutes -- the 11th in his career, and the third he's missed. His lack of goals will be a concern, he's now gone 12 matches without a goal for the national team, but over that spell he's contributed seven assists.
Ramsey's future is also up in the air, having made just 13 starts for Juventus in Serie A last season and played the full 90 minutes just twice in the top-flight. But like Bale, he reminded Europe of his class on Tuesday. He's still just 30 years old, and if he can continue this spate of form in the Euros, then the overtures from the clubs rumoured to be keen on bringing him back to the Premier League will only get louder as the tournament progresses.
But what Wales have proven over the last 180 minutes is they are far more than a two-man team. Daniel James was superb in the first half, with his pace and tricky dribbling leaving Zeki Celik like a spinning top, while their defenders ran themselves into the ground. Joe Allen's passing was typically on point, Joe Morrell brought plenty of energy, while the six-foot-five Kieffer Moore was a constant nuisance up front with his ability to drift to the far post to head back across goal causing the opposition defence all manner of problems. And then there's the resurgent Danny Ward, who saved brilliantly from Merih Demiral late on to preserve Wales' lead. For all their pre-tournament expectations, Turkey have disappointed. They lost 3-0 to Italy in Rome in their opener and were second best on this day in Baku.
Bale and Ramsey will get the spotlight, but both will deflect the praise onto their teammates, and will have learnt already in their careers the dangers of over excitement. The Wales players played down any bubbling hopes of replicating their 2016 success pre-tournament, but back home they know the hype will be heating up. Up next for Wales is Italy in Rome, a match Page's side can treat as a free-hit, and then it'll be the knockout stages where Bale and Ramsey will be hatching a plan to keep this show on the road.
Time to party again like it's 2016? Wales will do their best to temper expectations but Ramsey and Bale both showed the world they still have plenty of time left at the top.