UNL: KEVIN DE BRUYNE ON FIRE AS BELGIUM DEFEATS WALES
Kevin De Bruyne has played against Wales so often, he said earlier this week, that it is starting to become a “little bit boring” for him. To which the obvious response is: if this is how he plays when he is bored, then Belgium’s World Cup opponents should be living in genuine fear of an engaged, interested De Bruyne in Qatar.
The Manchester City midfielder was not just on a different level to this under-strength Wales side in Brussels. He was also operating on a higher plane than all of his team-mates and, one can only assume, every other footballer in Europe.
In the first half here it was a one-man savaging, and on another day De Bruyne would have scored four goals before the break. Such was his dominance against a Wales side that had, admittedly, been severely weakened by a series of injuries in key areas, that it almost felt unfair when he was not substituted at half-time.
“Don’t take for granted watching him play,” said Roberto Martinez, the Belgium manager. “For me he is the most incredible playmaker in football. His performance was magical.”
Wales manager Rob Page has built a sturdy team, though, and these are not players who readily accept when they are beaten. They weathered De Bruyne’s first-half pummelling and, in the second half, threw a few heavy punches of their own. The giant Kieffer Moore, ever the threat, headed in at the back post to underline his quality at this level.
It was not enough to avoid defeat, and relegation to League B of the Nations League remains a danger, but the second half did provide encouragement for Wales — not least because of the stars they were missing and the formidable nature of the opposition. “It is the character of the players,” said Page. “They never give up.”
The current injury list makes for brutal reading for Page, who was without Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Ben Davies and Harry Wilson. Gareth Bale, meanwhile, was only deemed fit enough to start on the bench.
A measure of Belgium’s quality could be seen in the total number of caps in their starting lineup. For Wales, there were just 364 appearances between the starting players.
A significant gap between the teams on paper, then, and there was a significant gap between them on the pitch, in the first half at least. De Bruyne side-footed Belgium into the lead within 10 minutes, and could have scored three more before half an hour had passed.
He was simply doing whatever he pleased — it was his run that cut Wales open for the second, and his cross that gave Michy Batshuayi a simple tap-in.
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But with Moore in attack, Wales will always have a chance, and the big striker rose high to head home Brennan Johnson’s second-half cross. Wales pushed for an equaliser, causing so much stress that Martinez was sent off for wasting time, but their efforts were ultimately not enough to undo the damage that De Bruyne had caused.