If this was Kevin De Bruyne when he was bored, then Belgium’s World Cup opponents would rightly tremble at the prospect of the damage he could do when he was in the mood. De Bruyne recently revealed how tired he was playing Wales – this was Belgium’s ninth meeting with Wales in the last 10 years and fourth in 18 months – but he scored a sumptuous goal and set up another for Michy Batshuayi to put them on their way to victory in the League of Nations in Brussels. Wales, who rightly saw a VAR review for a second-half penalty go in their favour, were outplayed in the first half but improved considerably in the second and hit back through Kieffer Moore. Brennan Johnson set up Moore for his header and finished the game strongly, scoring with five minutes remaining.
The final countdown blared over the loudspeakers 15 minutes before kick-off and there’s no escaping that for Wales all focus is on Doha and their first World Cup in 64 years. With Gareth Bale starting on the bench after arriving in Cardiff on Tuesday after playing for Los Angeles FC the previous day, and Aaron Ramsey, Ben Davies and Joe Allen all missing through injury, Wales were without several key cogs. Romelu Lukaku was a notable absentee for Belgium and perhaps it should come as no surprise that they stormed through a one-sided first half and fired like a well-oiled machine given that seven members of their starting line-up also started their Euro 2016 quarter-final defeat to Wales, and goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey was the only survivor that day. This display in Wales was far from that upset.
In fact, Wales were lucky to be only two goals down at the break. Belgium seemed likely to score in every attack, such was the ease with which they advanced towards the opposition’s 18-yard box. Youri Tielemans curled wide after meeting Yannick Carrasco’s cross, and De Bruyne fired wide of the post after being slipped by Eden Hazard, who later deflected the ball just wide. Batshuayi also scored before the goal. Wales were outclassed and overrun in midfield. De Bruyne, Hazard, Tielemans were given time to pick their moments, outmaneuvering Ethan Ampadu, on loan at Serie A club Spezia, and MK Dons’ Matt Smith, who introduced him in midfield. Apart from Joe Rodon and Ampadu seeing headers saved by Thibaut Courtois on the edge of half-time, Wales barely saw a Belgium goal. Anderlecht’s 18-year-old defender Zeno Debast had no problems in his debut.
Wales actually started brightly, but it was tough from the moment De Bruyne opened the scoring on 10 minutes, rounding off a typically tricky move from Belgium. Hazard dropped deep in possession and changed the game. Belgium quickly transferred the ball. Thomas Meunier made a clever first-time pass into the right channel for Batshuayi, who spotted De Bruyne lurking to his left. What happened next seemed both wonderful and vicious, painful from Wales’ perspective. De Bruyne advanced to the edge of the penalty area and coolly side-footed a first-time shot at goal, pushing past Hennessey, powerless to prevent the ball from nestling in the corner. De Bruyne’s skill caused no end of trouble, and his perfect curling cross towards the back post eight minutes before the break earned Batshuayi a simple tap-in.
The game was rigged for Belgium to gallop to victory. Only Johnson and Moore, who showed some neat moves in the first half, had other ideas. Five minutes after the break Johnson picked up the ball inside the Wales half and immediately slid down the right flank, eluding Carrasco and Axel Witsel before slotting in at the back post. Moore is ever alert in the penalty area and towered over Debast to put it in. Wales protected the gaping holes in midfield and seemed determined to show they were not pushed around. Then, in the 64th minute, Bale entered, instead of Moore. Hazard continued to buzz and Tielemans saw a shot deflected away, but if Wales didn’t believe they had room to come back, they did now.
De Bruyne left to a warm ovation in six minutes of stoppage time in the second half, before Johnson’s energy and electric rhythm surprisingly burdened Belgium and lost. The Nottingham Forest striker fired past Connor Roberts after a smart break before firing the ball over the bar. With 60 days until Wales kick off against the United States in Qatar, this proved an encouraging sign.