If it were Kevin De Bruyne when bored, then Belgium’s World Cup opponents would do well to tremble at the prospect of the damage he could inflict when he’s in the mood. De Bruyne recently recounted how he got tired of playing for Wales – this was Belgium’s ninth match against Wales in the past 10 years and the fourth in the past 18 months – but he scored a lavish goal and prepared a more for Michy Batshuayi to set them on course for a Nations League victory in Brussels. Wales, who rightly saw a VAR review go in their favor for a penalty in the second half, were overwhelmed in the first half but were significantly improved in the second and responded with Kieffer Moore. Brennan Johnson prepared Moore for his header and ended the match forcefully, pulling a shot wide with five minutes to go.
The final countdown rang out from the speakers 15 minutes before kick-off and there is no escaping the fact that for Wales the focus is on Doha and its first World Cup in 64 years. With starter Gareth Bale on the bench after arriving in Cardiff on Tuesday fresh from his Los Angeles FC game the previous day and Aaron Ramsey, Ben Davies and Joe Allen all absent through injury, Wales lined up without several key gears. Romelu Lukaku was a notable absentee for Belgium and perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that they made their way into a one-sided first half and fired like a well-oiled machine as seven of their starting lineup also started the quarter-finals. Euro 2016 defeat to Wales, with goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey the only survivor from that day. This Welsh performance was far from that upset.
In truth, Wales were lucky enough to score only two goals at half-time. It seemed plausible that Belgium would score with every attack, such was the ease with which they advanced towards the opponent’s 18-yard area. Youri Tielemans swerved to the side after encountering a Yannick Carrasco center and De Bruyne fired into a post after being pushed by Eden Hazard, who then folded slightly to the side. Batshuayi also knocked over before scoring. Wales were outclassed and invaded in midfield. De Bruyne, Hazard, Tielemans had time to choose their moments, overwhelming and outsmarting Ethan Ampadu, on loan to the Serie A club Spezia, and Matt Smith of MK Dons who withered in the center of the pitch. Aside from Joe Rodon and Ampadu who saw Thibaut Courtois headers back on the brink of half-time, Wales barely saw Belgium’s goal. 18-year-old Anderlecht defender Zeno Debast had no problems making his debut.
Wales actually got off to a great start but found the road difficult from the moment De Bruyne opened the scoring at 10 minutes, closing a typically shrewd move from Belgium. Hazard fell deep to lull possession and change the game. Belgium promptly moved the ball. Thomas Meunier slammed a shrewd first pass in the right channel for Batshuayi, which saw De Bruyne lurking on his left. What happened next was delightful and spiteful, painful from the point of view of Wales. De Bruyne advanced to the edge of the box and coolly kicks a first shot on goal to the side, squeezing his shot behind Hennessey, unable to keep the ball from nestling in the corner. De Bruyne’s artistry caused endless problems and his perfect, enveloping cross to the goal post eight minutes before half-time gave Batshuayi a simple tap-in.
The match was set for Belgium’s escape with a galloping victory. Only Johnson and Moore, who showed some neat touches in the first half, had other ideas. Five minutes after half-time Johnson picked up the ball in the Wales half and quickly skated down the right flank, evading Carrasco and Axel Witsel before crossing to the far post. Moore is always vigilant in the six-yard area and has towered over Deast to nod. Wales shored up the open holes in midfield and seemed determined to prove they are not pushovers. Then in the 64th minute Bale enters, in place of Moore. Hazard continued to buzz and Tielemans saw a deflected shot, but if Wales didn’t believe there was room for a comeback, he did now.
De Bruyne kicked off with a warm ovation in a six-minute injury time of the second half, before which Johnson’s energy and electric pace put Belgium surprisingly tense and on their back foot. The Nottingham Forest striker pulled wide a wide shot from Connor Roberts’ clever suspension before throwing a ball at the goal. 60 days after Wales kick-off against the United States in Qatar, this proved to be an encouraging indicator.