If this was Kevin De Bruyne when he is bored, then Belgium’s World Cup opponents would be right to quiver at the prospect of the damage he could inflict when he is in the mood. De Bruyne recently told how he had grown tired of playing Wales – this was Belgium’s ninth meeting with Wales in the past 10 years and the fourth in the past 18 months – but he scored a sumptuous goal and set up another for Michy Batshuayi to put them en route to a Nations League victory in Brussels. Wales, who rightly saw a VAR review for a second-half penalty go in their favour, were overwhelmed in the first half but were greatly improved in the second and hit back through Kieffer Moore. Brennan Johnson set up Moore for his header and finished the game strongly, pulling a shot wide with five minutes to play.
The Final Countdown blared over the speakers 15 minutes before kick-off and there is no escaping that for Wales all the focus is on Doha and their first World Cup in 64 years. With Gareth Bale starting on the bench after arriving into Cardiff on Tuesday fresh from playing for Los Angeles FC the previous day and Aaron Ramsey, Ben Davies and Joe Allen all missing through injury, Wales lined up without several key cogs. Romelu Lukaku was a notable absentee for Belgium and perhaps it should have been no surprise that they purred their way through a one-sided first half and fired like a well-oiled machine given seven of their starting lineup also began their Euro 2016 quarter-final defeat to Wales, with the goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey the sole survivor from that day. This Wales display was faraway from that upset.
In truth, Wales were fortunate to only trail by two goals at the interval. It seemed plausible that Belgium would score with every attack such was the ease with which they advanced towards the opposition 18-yard box. Youri Tielemans skewed wide after meeting a Yannick Carrasco centre and De Bruyne cannoned a shot against a post after being slipped in by Eden Hazard, who later bent a shot just wide. Batshuayi also spooned over before scoring. Wales were outclassed and overrun in midfield. De Bruyne, Hazard, Tielemans were afforded time to pick their moments, overpowering and outwitting Ethan Ampadu, on loan at Serie A club Spezia and Matt Smith of MK Dons who wilted in the centre of the pitch. Aside from Joe Rodon and Ampadu seeing headers repelled by Thibaut Courtois on the verge of half-time, Wales barely got sight of the Belgium goal. The 18-year-old Anderlecht defender Zeno Debast was untroubled on debut.
Wales actually began brightly but found the going tough from the moment De Bruyne opened the scoring on 10 minutes, capping a typically slick Belgium move. Hazard dropped deep to cradle possession and switch play. Belgium promptly shifted the ball. Thomas Meunier whisked a clever first-time pass into the right channel for Batshuayi, who spied De Bruyne lurking to his left. What happened next felt both delightful and spiteful, painful from a Wales perspective. De Bruyne advanced to the edge of the box and coolly side-footed a first-time shot at goal, squeezing his effort past Hennessey, powerless to prevent the ball nestling in the corner. De Bruyne’s artistry caused no end of problems and his perfect, curling cross towards the back post eight minutes before the break presented Batshuayi with a simple tap-in.
The game was set for Belgium to run away with victory at a canter. Only Johnson and Moore, who displayed some neat touches in the first half, had other ideas. Five minutes after the break Johnson picked the ball up inside the Wales half and promptly skated down the right flank, eluding Carrasco and Axel Witsel before standing a cross up towards the back post. Moore is always alert in the six-yard box and he towered above Debast to nod in. Wales shored up the gaping holes in midfield and seemed determined to show they are no pushovers. Then on 64 minutes Bale entered, in place of Moore. Hazard continued to buzz and Tielemans saw a shot deflected over but if Wales did not believe there was scope for a comeback, they did now.
De Bruyne departed to a warm ovation into six minutes of second-half stoppage time, before which Johnson’s energy and electric pace had Belgium surprisingly fraught and on the back foot. The Nottingham Forest forward arrowed a shot wide from Connor Roberts’s clever layoff before flashing a ball across goal. With 60 days to go until Wales kick-off against United States in Qatar, this turned out to be an encouraging marker.