Belgium got their World Cup qualification campaign up and running as Kevin De Bruyne inspired them to a 3-1 comeback win over Wales.
In the first meeting of the teams since Wales’ memorable 3-1 triumph in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, the world’s number one ranked side fell behind to Harry Wilson’s 10th-minute opener.
Gareth Bale was central to Wales’ opener, though Belgium’s star player subsequently stepped up, levelling proceedings with a stunning effort.
Thorgan Hazard completed the turnaround six minutes later and, after a bright second-half performance from Wales, Roberto Martinez’s team sealed a strong start to Group E through Romelu Lukaku’s penalty.
Wales suffered a blow when Joe Allen hobbled off injured in the eighth minute, yet the visitors were celebrating a wonderfully worked goal moments later.
Bale was the heart of the 17-pass move, threading a perfect first-time throughball into the path of Wilson, who calmly slotted home.
De Bruyne’s sensational right-wing cross handed Lukaku a golden chance to restore parity, only for the Inter forward to blaze over.
Wales’ luck did not last, though, with De Bruyne taking full advantage of being given space and time 25 yards out – the Manchester City star’s strike clipping in off the right-hand upright.
Wearing the number 10 shirt typically taken by his older brother Eden, Hazard got the assist for De Bruyne’s equaliser, and the Borussia Dortmund playmaker turned scorer when he steered Thomas Meunier’s cross home.
No stranger to magnificent overhead kicks, Bale could have equalised early in the second half, but failed to make full contact with an acrobatic attempt.
Lukaku saw a shot well blocked with 24 minutes remaining and De Bruyne sliced wide on the rebound.
But Wales’ lingering hopes were quashed when Chris Mepham flung a boot at Dries Mertens and Lukaku drilled in from 12 yards to make sure of the victory.
14 – Kevin De Bruyne has been directly involved in 14 goals across his last eight appearances for Belgium (5 goals, 9 assists), scoring in consecutive matches for his country for the first time since May 2016. Catalyst.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 24, 2021
What does it mean? Belgium no longer based on individual talents
The Czech Republic lead Group E, thanks to a thrashing of Estonia – West Ham talisman Tomas Soucek scoring a hat-trick in that match – though it is Belgium who are the outright favourites to qualify in first place.
Back at Euro 2016, Belgium’s stars could not find the team unity to go with their outstanding quality, but under Martinez, the Red Devils have stepped up a level.
Their home form is also imperious. Belgium have not lost a home match in qualifying for the European Championships or World Cup since September 2010 against Germany – they are unbeaten in 25 since, winning 19 and drawing six and scoring 90 goals.
Played on the right of Belgium’s front three with full licence to roam, De Bruyne was at his sublime best for Belgium, causing havoc between Wales’ lines and often leaving the visiting defence and midfield baffled to his whereabouts.
De Bruyne ended Wales’ run of 418 minutes without conceding in away competitive fixtures, while he has been directly involved in 14 goals across his last eight appearances for Belgium (five goals, nine assists), scoring in back-to-back matches for his country for the first time since May 2016.
Sluggish Lukaku still comes good
There was doubt over whether Lukaku would be allowed to travel for international duty, following a COVID-19 outbreak at Inter.
Fortunately for Martinez, Belgium’s record goalscorer was able to feature, albeit he turned in a rather sloppy display by his usual high standards. The 27-year-old’s penalty was his only shot on target from four attempts, while it brought up his first goal against Wales in his fifth appearance against them.
Key Opta Facts
– Belgium have picked up their first victory against Wales since September 2012 in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup (2-0), having failed to win any of their previous four meetings with the Dragons prior to today (D2 L2).
– Wilson’s opener finished off a sequence of 17 passes for Wales – he has now scored in consecutive appearances for his country for the first time.
– Hazard both scored and assisted in a game for Belgium for the first time in his international career (32nd cap).
– Bale, who provided the assist for Wales’ goal, has now assisted in each of his last three games for his country.
Wales host Mexico in a friendly on Saturday before resuming their qualification campaign against the Czech Republic, who Belgium visit next.
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