Kevin De Bruyne proved to be the difference between Cymru and Belgium in Brussels as he contributed a goal and an assist for his team in a 2-1 victory that leaves Rob Page’s side needing nothing less than a victory against Poland on Sunday.
Cymru went into the match still searching for their first win of the campaign, but were boosted by the fact that their solitary point came at the expense of Belgium in the 1-1 draw in Cardiff back in June. Brennan Johnson was the goalscoring hero that night, and the Nottingham Forest forward was named in an expectedly experimental starting line-up by manager Rob Page with Gareth Bale on the bench.
Belgium manager Roberto Martínez was critical of the way his team had allowed Cymru to earn a share of the points in Cardiff, and handed 18-year old Anderlecht defender Zeno Debast his first senior international start alongside the veteran duo of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. However, it was at the other end of the field that Belgium impressed, and it was De Bruyne who put them ahead inside 11 minutes with a fine left-footed finish past Cymru captain on the night Wayne Hennessey.
Further chances followed for the home side in the opening half as De Bruyne hit the post and Eden Hazard shot narrowly wide. A brilliant display tested Cymru to the limit as Belgium attacked in numbers and the lead was doubled on 38 minutes when De Bruyne turned provider for Michy Batshuayi to finish from close range. Thibaut Courtois had to punch clear an Ethan Ampadu header before half-time to offer Cymru hope, but not before Hennessey denied De Bruyne from scoring his second goal.
Despite Belgium’s dominance, a superb run from Brennan Johnson on the left within minutes of the restart created space for him to cross for Kieffer Moore and the striker made no mistake to reduce the deficit and bring Cymru right back into the game. Martínez had warned his side against complacency after the match in Cardiff, but they quickly regrouped and regained long periods of possession.
Bale was introduced for Moore midway through the 2nd half, and he came close to heading his side level within minutes of his introduction as he combined with Daniel James but his effort was blocked. Cymru were clearly lifted by the presence of Bale and began asking questions of the Belgian defence, but controversy followed on 78 minutes when Joe Morrell’s tackle on De Bruyne was initially considered a penalty by referee Ali Palabıyık before being overturned following a VAR review.
Cymru remained in contention for an equaliser as the match became stretched in the final moments with Neco Williams and Johnson coming close to finding the crucial goal, but it was Belgium that would claim maximum points thanks in the main to the individual brilliance of De Bruyne.
Page’s balancing act – Just like he did in June, Rob Page was once again forced to play the long game in terms of his team selection. With Poland next in Cardiff on Sunday evening to complete the UEFA Nations League campaign, Gareth Bale was named on the bench despite the absence of injured quartet Aaron Ramsey, Ben Davies, Joe Allen and Harry Wilson. In addition, the opening match of the World Cup is less than two months away. The focus in June was to qualify, but the focus now is to ensure Cymru head to Qatar at full-strength.
The rise of Rhys – Rob Page spoke highly of Rhys Norrington-Davies in his press conference on Wednesday and entrusted the Sheffield United defender with a place on the left of his back three on his 12th senior international appearance. A superb challenge on Michy Batshuayi when the striker appeared through on goal after 17 minutes offered a snapshot of his overall contribution and why he can be considered a serious option for Page in that position.
The Red Wall – The superb travelling support were in fine voice at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels. Few nations can boast such a passionate atmosphere than what follows Cymru across the continent, and their unwavering support and appreciation for Rob Page and his squad has been a cornerstone to what the side has achieved in recent years, with a lot more to come.
Belgium could and should have taken a more commanding lead into half-time as their two-goal advantage was not a fair reflection on how dominant they had been. However, Rob Page addressed the obvious failings and the side looked a lot more compact and organised after the restart, and were boosted by an early goal from Kieffer Moore. One match remains for Cymru to avoid relegation from League A, but they will now face Poland in Cardiff on Sunday without Chris Mepham and Ethan Ampadu through suspension.
Belgium XI: Courtois (GK), Alderweireld, Debast, Vertonghen, Witsel, De Bruyne (De Ketelaere 90+1), Tielemans (Vanaken – 75), E.Hazard (c) (Trossard – 65), Carrasco (Mertens – 65), Meunier, Batshuayi (Openda – 65).
Subs: Mignolet (GK), Casteels (GK), Theate, Onana, Dendoncker, Castagne, Saelemaekers.
Manager: Roberto Martínez.
Goals: De Bruyne (11), Batshuayi (38).
Yellow Cards: None.
Red Cards: None.
Cymru XI: Hennessey (GK)(c), N.Williams, Mepham, Rodon, Smith (Morrell – 64), Johnson, Moore (Bale – 64), C.Roberts, Ampadu, Norrington-Davies (T. Roberts -84), James.
Subs: Ward (GK), King (GK), Gunter, Cabango, Levitt, J. Williams, Harris, Thomas, Harris.
Manager: Rob Page.
Goals: Moore (50).
Yellow Cards: Mepham (49), Ampadu (59), Bale (78).
Red Cards: None.
Referee: Ali Palabıyık (Turkey).
Assistant referees: Serkan Olguncan (Turkey) and Erdinç Sezertam (Turkey).
Fourth official: Hüseyin Göçek (Turkey).
VAR: Mete Kalkavan (Turkey).
Assistant VAR: Abdulkadir Bitigen (Turkey).
BELGIUM 2-1 CYMRU
UEFA NATIONS LEAGUE
- 22 September 2022
- King Baudouin Stadium- Brussels