Kevin De Bruyne’s first-half masterclass was enough for Belgium to beat Wales 2-1 in the Nations League and leave Rob Page’s side needing a win over Poland on Sunday to avoid relegation from Group A4.
Wales failed to recover after De Bruyne gave Belgium the lead (10) with an exquisite left-footed finish on the edge of the box and had no answer to the Man City playmaker as he continued to wreak havoc before the break, setting up former Chelsea striker Michy Batshuayi (37) with a low cross to make it 2-0.
Kieffer Moore’s early second-half goal (50) gave Wales hope of staging a comeback but not even the introduction of captain Gareth Bale off the bench could clinch an equaliser for a depleted Wales side that produced a spirited second-half display in their penultimate game before the World Cup.
Wales are teetering on the edge of relegation from the top tier of the competition ahead of Sunday’s final Group A4 match against Poland in Cardiff on Sunday. Belgium, meanwhile, remain three points behind the table-topping Netherlands, who they must beat by a margin of two on Sunday to head to the Nations League finals.
Belgium: Courtois (7), Debast (6), Alderweireld (6), Vertonghen (6), Meunier (6), Tielemans (7), Witsel (6), Carrasco (6), De Bruyne (8), Batshuayi (7), Hazard (7).
Subs: Openda (6), Mertens (6), De Ketelaere (n/a), Trossard (6), Vanaken (n/a).
Wales:Hennessey (7), Roberts (7), Rodon (7), Mepham (7), Williams (6), Smith (6), Ampadu (6), Norrington-Davies (6), James (5), Moore (7), Johnson (7).
Subs: Bale (6), Morrell (6), Roberts (n/a).
Man of the match: Kevin De Bruyne.
How Wales fell short in Brussels
Belgium had a slow opening 10 minutes until a moment of quality from De Bruyne broke the deadlock. His left-footed, first-time finish on the edge of the area – after being teed up by Batshuayi’s perfectly-weighted pass – too precise for Wayne Hennessey to keep out despite getting a fingertip to it.
Wales crumbled after conceding the first goal while Belgium never looked back and De Bruyne nearly doubled his tally as he struck the base of the post with another long-range effort just shy of the half-hour mark as Roberto Martinez’s side toyed with the visitors in Brussels.
Group A4: Remaining fixtures
- Belgium vs Wales – Brussels, Thursday September 22
- Poland vs Netherlands – Warsaw, Thursday September 22
- Netherlands vs Belgium – Amsterdam, Sunday September 25
- Wales vs Poland – Cardiff, Sunday September 25
When Belgium eventually did make it 2-0, De Bruyne was again involved as he returned the favour by setting up Batshuayi with an inch-perfect cross that the former Chelsea striker – filling in for the injured Romelu Lukaku – slotted home from close-range just before the break.
Wales showed resilience to bounce back in the second half as Moore met Nottingham Forest forward Brennan Johnson’s back-post cross with a towering header, completely overpowering Belgium’s 18-year-old centre-back Zeno Debast on his international debut.
- Wales were without Aaron Ramsey, Ben Davies and Harry Wilson.
- Gareth Bale was not risked from the start.
- Romelu Lukaku was absent due to injury for Belgium.
Bale, the Wales captain, made an impact off the bench as Page’s side continued to push for an equaliser. They suffered a scare when the referee blew for a penalty after Joe Morrell’s fair challenge on De Bruyne, but were saved by the intervention of the VAR.
There was a late chance for Forest forward Johnson when Connor Roberts headed the ball down to him in the box, but the 21-year-old was unable to steer his effort towards goal. Belgium head coach Martinez was sent off in the closing stages as he held on to the ball for too long in an attempt to waste time.
Page: Poland game a final for Wales
Wales head coach Rob Page:
“It’s a great lesson for us. We were without five players today who would make us stronger.
“We couldn’t press high. Every time we pressed high they played through us. We changed that at half-time and dropped a little bit deeper and changed the shape.
“There’s been lessons learnt here to take into the World Cup. I said to them in the changing room, we’ve asked for this. By qualifying for the World Cup, we’re asking to compete against nations like Belgium, like Holland, and we’ve been in the games right up until the end. It speaks volumes about that group of players.
“Tactically, of course we’re going to have to make tweaks and changes. They’re the number two seed in the world, by the way. We’ve come away from home, it’s 2-1 at the death and we’re still creating chances.
“There’s too many positives. I’m not going to be negative. It’s one game now. If we’ve come from June to now where we’ve qualified for the World Cup and stayed in the division [League A] then that’s a massive achievement for those players.”
“We’ve just got to recover the lads [for Poland on Sunday]. There’ll be some changes made and we’ll go and put a team out to win the game.
“It’s a final. Forget the World Cup, this is the game we want to win on Sunday.”
Moore: Full focus on Poland for Wales
Wales striker Kieffer Moore speaking to BBC Radio Wales:
“It was always going to be a hard game. They were very good tonight. We come away not so much disappointed – we will take positives out of it and go again on Sunday.
“A win keeps us in the group so it’s full focus on Poland. I think we are in a good place, it’s our last home game before going to the World Cup so if we can leave on a high then great.”
Hazard: I’m happiest when I play
Belgium captain Eden Hazard speaking to RTL:
“I was happy to start another match. You saw that, I think. I’m happy when I play, and it was nice to play for the supporters here (in Brussels) again. Our first half was very good.
“I know what I can do. Now I want to get in shape for the World Cup. We’ll see what the coach (Roberto Martinez) decides, but I’m happiest when I play.
“When I play, I give it my all. It’s a delicate situation at Real Madrid. I feel like playing more, but I can’t do more.
“I’ve always said the old Eden Hazard will come back when he plays. I just need to get back into the rhythm.”
Earnshaw: De Bruyne ran the show, but positives for Wales
Fomer Wales striker Robert Earnshaw speaking on Sky Sports News:
“It was a great game of football to watch. Belgium were unplayable in the first half, they were too good. Hazard had a great performance, it’s good to see him back, and De Bruyne ran the show.
“Gareth Bale came on for Wales in the second half and made a bit of a difference.
“If I’m Rob Page, in the first half, I’m thinking ‘guys, that’s not good enough, nowhere near’. Just determination, taking away the spaces, making it hard for the other team. De Bruyne is brilliant, but make it hard for him. They didn’t, they just allowed him the time and all the space.
“But the second half was excellent. They changed the tactics a little bit, the positioning and they made it more compact, looked for the counter-attack, especially down the right with Johnson, who was very good.
“So there were two things – good bouncing back after the first half, but a lot of lessons individually as well. Maybe one or two [players] he would have been disappointed with but overall, the second half was much better.
“I think the majority of this squad will go [to the World Cup]. There’s probably four or five squad that are up for grabs. Whether he pulls in a couple of surprises with a 17 or 18 year old on the bench tonight or somebody misses out.
“Rob Page wants people he can count on. He’ll have an older Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey – who will be around for another few years – and there’s a transition of needing the next batch of youngsters to take in this experience and be the next ones to take over with the Wales team.
“There could be two or three young players who can now step up, like Johnson.”
Wales’ next game is on Sunday as they host Poland in their final Nations League match of their Group A4 campaign.
The game in Cardiff, which kicks off at 7.45pm, will be Wales’ last competitive fixture before they head to Qatar to play in their first World Cup in 64 years.
Rob Page’s side face the USA in their opening World Cup group game on November 21 at the Al Rayyan Stadium.