If it was Kevin De Bruyne when he’s bored, then World Cup opponents Belgium would be right to shudder at the prospect of the damage he could do when he’s in the mood.
De Bruyne recently told how he got tired of playing for Wales – it was the ninth meeting between these sides in the last 10 years and the fourth in the last 18 months – but scored a lavish goal and set up another for Michy Batshuayi to set out for a Nations League win.
Things looked worrying for Wales in the meantime given that Belgium should have been out of sight; De Bruyne fired a shot against the woodwork, Youri Tielemans deflected wide, Eden Hazard curled a shot just past a post and Batshuayi fired another.
But if anything reflected the stagnation of things for Belgium, it was the sight of Roberto Martínez, one of the most placid and gentle characters in the game, receiving the first red card of his managerial career after a loss of time.
“It’s a new experience,” Martínez said. “I was surprised. I probably should have let go of the ball and that’s it but the moment I kicked the ball [away] … I accept the referee’s decision.
In truth, Wales were lucky to trail just two goals at the break, but the way they reacted should give them encouragement for their first World Cup in 64 years. There are 60 days left until the kick-off in Doha against the United States and in the end, despite a deflated first half, there was no shortage of reasons for optimism. Brennan Johnson’s fearlessness proved a catalyst as Wales worked their way back into the game, their cross over the head of Kieffer Moore, and Johnson fired five minutes from time after being hooked on Connor Roberts’ layoff.
“It’s a big lesson for us,” said Wales manager Rob Page, who improved to 5-4-1 at the break. “Every time we pressed high, they played through us. We changed that at halftime and went a little deeper and changed the form.
Gareth Bale came on as a 64th-minute substitute but Aaron Ramsey, Ben Davies and Joe Allen were all out through injury. Romelu Lukaku was a notable absentee for Belgium and it might not have been surprising if they fought their way through a one-sided first half and fired like a well-oiled machine given that seven of their starting XI also started their Euro 2016 quarter-final. defeat against Wales, goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey being the only survivor of that day.
Wales actually started brilliantly but found it difficult from when De Bruyne opened the scoring in the 10th minute, capping off a typically Belgian move.
Thomas Meunier threw a clever first pass down the right channel for Batshuayi, who spotted De Bruyne to his left. What happened next was both delightful and wicked, painful from a Wales perspective. De Bruyne moved to the edge of the box and fired a first shot on goal, pressing his effort past Hennessey, powerless to prevent the ball from nesting in the corner. De Bruyne’s artistry caused endless trouble and his perfect cross to the back post eight minutes before the break gave Batshuayi a tap-in.
Martínez was among those purring. “This is a message to all our fans: don’t take watching Kevin De Bruyne play for granted,” he said. “I think he’s the most incredible playmaker in world football right now, the way he sees the game, his understanding of time and space and then the execution as well. I thought his performance was magical, but he did it consistently. Sometimes I look at him and we’re so, so lucky to have a player like Kevin.
De Bruyne left to a hearty ovation during six minutes of second-half stoppage time, but those of a Welsh persuasion may have had other names on their lips as Wales finished the match. “It was a two-half game,” Johnson said. “In the first half, we lacked conviction, we didn’t know how good we could be, and above all what we could bring for the future. We didn’t show any of that. In the second half we came out with a different mentality and we are proud. Rob Page told us to believe each other, to show why we’re here, and I think we did.