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: 899. 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.
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.
Belgium vs Wales, as it happened
'The rules are so stupid'
Belgium midfielder Kevin de Bruyne speaking to S4C:
"I think we fully deserved to win, we dominated the first half and created a lot of chances. Wales were playing man to man so there were more options in the first half.
"Then we started the second half poorly, we have to keep the ball as Wales were playing so deep and wait for the right moments."
Asked about Belgium's penalty shout, De Bruyne said: "I was already running to the corner, the rules are so stupid though, it should then be a corner."
'We can take positives out of it'
Kieffer Moore speaks to BBC Radio Wales:
"It was always going to be hard but I think we can take positives out of it. We know the task ahead and now all the focus is on Sunday.
"We're in a good place. It's our last game at home before the World Cup on Sunday so it would be great to head to Qatar on a positive note."
'In the second half we had a different mentality'
Brennan Johns gives his post-match thoughts to S4C
"It was game of two halves, in the first we lacked belief and didn't know what we could bring to the game. In the second half we had a different mentality and did ourselves proud. When the big guy [Kieffer Moore] is up top you have to hang it up for him, he did the rest.
"Rob [Page] told us to belief in ourselves at half time, we're in a World Cup and Nations League's Group A, we showed that in the second half. It's a massive game on Sunday [against Poland], we want to be in this league and play the best teams in the world. We'll be ready for it."
'Freedom to go where he wants for Belgium'
By Sam Dean in Belgium
Kevin De Bruyne's performance for Belgium tonight, especially in the first half, was ridiculous. On a different level to everyone else. Seems to have more freedom to go where he wants for Belgium - City are obviously more structured*
*I'm not saying Belgium are better than City
Wales have a chance to stay in the upper echelon of the the Nations League on Sunday after Poland lost to the Netherlands tonight.
To remain in the top tier, tier A, Wales need to beat Poland on Sunday night at the Cardiff City Stadium and they need to do so - because of head-to-head - with at least two goals scored.
With a big game in the Nations League to come and the World Cup on the horizon, that was such an encouraging second half from Rob Page's side considering they had so many key players out.
FULL TIME: Belgium 2-1 Wales
Could we say the Belgians hung on there?
90+5 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
Final roll of the dice of the dice for Wales but Courtois is out to claim a floated ball from Neco Williams.
90+3 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
RED CARD for Roberto Martinez.
The Belgium manager kicks the ball away as Wales try to retrieve the ball out of play.
Straight red from Ali Palabiyik. Scenes.
90+2 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
Neat work from Mertens earns Belgium a corner. Here comes the time wasting...
90+1 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
De Bruyne is off with De Ketelaere coming on to help see this game out.
Meunier has half an opening on the edge of the box but can't keep his shot down.
90+1 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
Six minutes of added-on time.
89 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
Great save from Courtois after Bale sets up Tyler Roberts. Ampadu is there on the follow up but his shot is blocked.
There's a chance here for Wales...
87 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
The first Belgian opening for some time but Dires Mertens can't get enough whip on his effort as he cuts in from the left.
85 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
Immediate chance after the change and it's Brennan Johnson who has a good opportunity to hit target after a cushion header from Connor Roberts. His shot is well wide though.
84 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
Tyler Roberts is on for Norrington-Davies. Rob Page is really going for this now. You can he fancies it.
81 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
We're back after that strange sequence. Ten minutes of normal time to go. Should be plenty added on as well.
Wales will just want one chance.
78 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
Overturned. That wasn't even close to being a penalty.
Feels wrong to call that a reprieve for Wales as that was a great challenge.
Gareth Bale was booked during the melee there...not sure what for.
Then the ref gives Wales the goal kick despite seeing the ball go out off Morrell on the replay. Strange few minutes from our Turkish referee here.
76 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
De Bruyne gets there first but that looks a really well-timed challenge from Morrell.
Var is having a look and the ref has been called to the monitor.
We know what that means.
76 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
PENALTY TO BELGIUM
Looks dubious from here.
75 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
The longer this goes on for the more nervy the Belgians will get......
Can Wales fashion something?
73 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
Real clash in fan attitudes here. The Belgians have been trying to get a Mexican wave going for the whole game but the Wales fans aren't playing ball. Every time the wave gets to the Wales end there's a huge boos as the travelling hordes refuse to engage. Great stuff
70 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
Dries Mertens has to shoot as he dribbles cleverly to the edge of the box but he tries to overplay it and suddenly Wales are away. Dan James does well to hold the ball up and then gets another great ball to the back post. Kieffer Moore is purpose built for a goal like that but he's already off.
67 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
More good work from Wales. Dan James puts a cross in toward Bale, who gets there first but it deflects wide off a Belgian head.
Clumsy foul from James allows Belgium to ease the pressure.
63 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
He he comes. Bale is on for Kieffer Moore and Joe Morrell is on for Matt Smith.
For Belgium, Openda is on for Batshuayi, Dries Mertens for Carrasco and Leandro Trossard replaces Eden Hazard.
61 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
Gareth Bale looks to be warming up on the Wales sideline...
Wales are much tighter in this half. Belgium are still enjoying plenty of possession but this Wales shape is making things much trickier for the hosts.
57 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
Hazard is fouled by Ethan Ampadu as he disrupts the Belgium counter attack.
Ampadu is booked. This is in a dangerous area and it's a neat move from the Belgian's as hazard lays off a neat pass to Tielemans. His shot is deflected wide.
54 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
Rob Page has tweaked things at half time and it's working early in the second half. Matt Smith is being much more disciplined in the middle of the park and that's limiting the space for the likes of De Bruyne and Tielemans.
'Classic big-man goal'
By Sam Dean in Belgium
Wales back in the game. Kieffer Moore with a classic big-man-at-the-back-post header, from Brennan Johnson's cross. Moore is a real threat at this level: that's his ninth goal in 27 international appearances.
If you're interested in reading more about the former lifeguard and personal trainer, I would humbly recommend our interview with him in August.
49 min: Belgium 2-1 Wales
Brennan Johnson does well down the right to chip a great ball up to the back post. Kieffer Moore gets up really well and a strong header leaves Courtois no chance.
48 min: Belgium 2-0 Wales
Naughty from Mepham. Who cynically fouls Eden Hazard. That looked like frustration.
The centre-half is booked and he'll now miss Sunday's game against Poland.
46 min: Belgium 2-0 Wales
Wales will want to start quickly here. Just as I type Neco Williams smashes a wild pass out for a goal kick...not a great start.
No changes from Rob Page by the way. Bit of a surprise to be honest.
Here they come
The players are walking out to the dulcet tones of Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive'.
Strangely apt for Wales' current predicament.
In better news
Poland are 1-0 down to the Netherlands at half-time. If that scoreline stays the same, Wales will have a chance to avoid Nations League relegation on Sunday.
Tough night so far
Danny Gabbidon is unimpressed with what he's seen from Wales tonight. This is what he said on BBC Radio Wales at half-time.
"Apart from the opening five or six minutes, it's probably been the worst performance I have seen from a Wales team for a long time."
"Belgium ask different questions of you with their movement and quality and we really have been found wanting."
Here's a look at Kevin de Bruyne's opening goal this evening. I think you'll agree I underplayed the quality of this finish initially.
A classy left-footed finish from Kevin De Bruyne! The Manchester City superstar made that look so easy 👏
Belgium make their first real attack count as they open the scoring against Wales 🇧🇪#BELWAL pic.twitter.com/bLPnZE45v0
— Premier Sports (@PremierSportsTV) September 22, 2022
'He's playing a different game'
By Sam Dean in Belgium
Kevin De Bruyne is seemingly playing a different game to everyone else tonight. He's seeing different angles and finding different spaces, and the Welsh midfield does not seem able to do anything about it.
It's only half-time here and the Manchester City midfielder has scored one, assisted one, hit the post, had a shot cleared off the line, fired narrowly over the bar and had a one-versus-one saved by Wayne Hennessey.
It would be safe to say that Wales are missing Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, their usual central midfielders. Matt Smith, of League One side MK Dons, is having a difficult evening.
HALF TIME: Belgium 2-0 Wales
Belgium have been good. De Bruyne has been outstanding. Wales have been outmatched here and Rob Page has some serious work to do at half-time.
'Struggling to handle Kevin De Bruyne'
By Sam Dean in Belgium
The Wales midfield of Ethan Ampadu and Matt Smith is struggling to handle Kevin De Bruyne here, which isn't particularly surprising. De Bruyne has scored one, hit the post, had a shot cleared off the line and now created a goal for Michy Batshuayi.
42 min: Belgium 2-0 Wales
Belgium are obviously a top side but this Wales display has been pretty average so far. Gaping holes everywhere. Misplaced passes. More needed.
De Bruyne nearly takes advantage again, forcing a smart save from Hennessey who uses his feet to deflect it wide.
40 min: Belgium 2-0 Wales
Chance for Wales! Rodon is found at the back post and heads the ball back across goal forcing the save from Courtois.
Ethan Ampadu unleashes a header of his own as the ball spoons up in the air but Courtois is up to the task again.
37 min: Belgium 2-0 Wales
Batshuayi is the goalscorer but this is all about Kevin de Bruyne again. He's found by Meunier after a clever run into the box. He uses his strength to hold off the Wales defence before whipping an inch-perfect ball across the six-yard box to find Batshuayi at the back post for the tap in.
Batshuayi in on the act.
33 min: Belgium 1-0 Wales
Hazard cuts in from the left and whips a right-footed shot towards the far corner.
Hennessey is at full stretch and is thankful to see the ball go wide.
Chelsea fans will be very familiar with that kind of silky move from Hazard.
30 min: Belgium 1-0 Wales
Belgium have been excellent here but Wales aren't doing themselves any favours by giving the ball away cheaply.
This time it's Norrington-Davies who misplaces a pass but mercifully De Bruyne's pass to Meunier goes out of play.
27 min: Belgium 1-0 Wales
De Bruyne is on fire here and nearly has his second. n fact he could have four already.
The Belgians counter attack rapidly again and feed De Bruyne 25 yards out. He curls one to the right of the Hennessey but it smashes into the post and bounces away.
The keeper had no chance there.
24 min: Belgium 1-0 Wales
De Bruyne is clean through down the left and you think for all the world that he's going to slide it past Hennessey until he gets the ball caught under his feet.
Carrasco and Batshuayi then each have chances that they may feel they should have done better with.
Wales are on the rack here.
20 min: Belgium 1-0 Wales
Eden Hazard hasn't had a huge amount of football for Real Madrid this season but he looks sharp here.
He's popping up deeper than we're accustomed to seeing him normally but his neat touches and feints are launching plenty of dangerous attacks.
18 min: Belgium 1-0 Wales
Wales do have some threat here but they just can't find any quality in the final third. The crossing, in particular, has been poor.
At the other end, Kiefer Moore gives the ball away and Belgium swarm forward. De Bruyne unleashes a shot from the edge of the box but it sails over the bar.
15 min: Belgium 1-0 Wales
A huge chance goes begging for Belgium.
Carrasco has Mepham in knots and he weaves into the area and squares the ball across the six-yard box.
He finds an unmark Tielemans in the box but he scuffs his left-foot shot wide.
Moments later, De Bruyne puts Batshuayi in with a ball over the top but Wales deal with the danger well.
11 min: Belgium 1-0 Wales
I've actually underplayed that finish from De Bruyne. A real touch of class from the Manchester City man.
10 min: Belgium 1-0 Wales
Belgium enjoy their longest spell of possession and the chance comes after Meunier feeds Batshuayi down the right.
The striker does well to find De Bruyne on the edge of the box, who produces a calm finish with his left foot.
De Bruyne puts Belgium ahead
6 min: Belgium 0-0 Wales
After a pretty slow start Belgium are enjoying more possession. Carrasco feeds De Bruyne on the overlap but Wales respond well and earn a goal kick.
4 min: Belgium 0-0 Wales
Tielemans is dispossessed in midfield and Johnson breaks away again. He feeds Roberts wide on the right but the ref blows after second ball appears on the pitch.
That was decent chance for Wales and Rob Page is less than amused.
2 min: Belgium 0-0 Wales
Bright start from Wales, who get Brennan Johnson into the box down the right after some neat interplay. He has a great chance to pick out a man but his cross is loose and drifts over the bar.
0 min: Belgium 0-0 Wales
We're underway and Kiefer Moore has attempted to break the record for the quickest foul in Nations League history after catching Alderweireld with an elbow.
The man in charge
Turkey's Ali Palabiyik is tonight's referee.
The Welsh do always smash their anthem. Another rousing rendition from a sizeable travelling contingent in Brussells tonight.
The teams are in the tunnel
Here they come. The two sides appear and stand in front of a strange inflatable balloon carrying some kind of ad campaign.
A bad description from me admittedly but it is pretty weird.
Rob Page could give international debuts to two uncapped teenagers this evening.
Birmingham City midfielder Jordan James, 28, has been in excellent form for his club so far this season and has been rewarded with his first call up.
The other is 17-year-old Luke Harris. The midfielder has only made on senior appearance for Fulham in his young career and would become the fourth youngest player to represent Wales at 17 years and 171 days.
Wayne Hennessey is in goal for Wales tonight despite making just one appearance for Nottingham Forest so far this season.
Leicester's Danny Ward is on the bench after enduring a rocky start after replacing Kasper Schmeichel in goal at the King Power Stadium.
Must keep reminding ourselves this is a game with actual Nations League ramifications....difficult though that may be.
The prestige (or lack there of) of this competition is probably underlined by the fact that for many this is really just a World Cup tune-up.
Here's a few nuggets for you number crunches out there.
Belgium have never lost a home match against Wales in seven previous meetings on home soil (four wins, three draws), winning 3-1 in the most recent game at Den Dreef in March 2021.
Belgium are the leading scorers in the Nations League with 37 goals, scoring in every game. The Belgians have also conceded 23 goals, with the 60 goals in their matches the most of any nation.
In their last 13 away matches, Wales have either kept a clean sheet (six times) or conceded at least twice (seven times), shipping 18 goals.
Hope you statos are suitably satiated for now.
What about Gareth?
Wales' talisman Gareth Bale is among the substitutes tonight but is only expected to playa limited role.
Bale, who joined Los Angeles FC earlier this summer has appeared mostly as a substitute in the MLS so far.
With a World Cup on the horizon, Page will be keen to do all he can to make sure his star gets to Qatar fit and healthy.
It would be a surprise to see him in anything other a fleeting appearance this evening.
Here's what Wales manager Rob Page had to say ahead of this one.
"We've got three or four key players out with Joe in the middle of the park, Ben Davies and Aaron and Harry, so you've got to get the balance right.
"I'm not going to risk anyone's health or injury with a World Cup in November but we also want to stay in the division.
"We've fought with one hand tied behind our back before in the first couple of games because of the [World Cup play-off] final and unfortunately we're in the position we're in.
"But we've still got two games left to stay in the division so we'll take that. If we can qualify for a World Cup and still be in League A, I'd be really proud of the players."
Nations League group outlook
With two games to go, there's plenty on the line for both these sides as far as the Nations League is concerned.
For Belgium, a win here keeps them within touching distance of group leaders, the Netherlands, and will set up a final-game shootout for Group 4 with the Dutch - irrelevant of what Louis van Gaal's side do against Poland this evening.
For Wales the equation is simple. They must at least match Poland's result against the Netherlands tonight to give themselves a chance of of avoiding relegation when they face the Poles on Sunday.
Look at the scenes
Wales fans in Brussels. Enjoying themselves. pic.twitter.com/mkBSmvrqZ2
— Sam Dean (@SamJDean) September 22, 2022
No punches pulled by Martinez
Belgium are fielding what looks a strong side on paper. De Bruyne, Hazard, Tielemans, Witsel - to name just four. Top-class talent everywhere....
With a World Cup just around a corner and a Nations League group win to chase, Roberto Martinez is not messing around here.
Here are the teams...
Belgium XI: Courtois; Debast, Alderweireld, Vertonghen; Meunier, Tielemans, Witsel, Carrasco; De Bruyne, Batshuayi, Hazard
Wales XI: Hennessey; Mepham, Rodon, Norrington-Davies; Roberts, Ampadu, Smith, N Williams; Johnson, Moore, James
...and welcome to the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels as Belgium and Wales meet for a fourth time in the last 18 months.
This clash comes in the UEFA Nations League but the game’s importance surely lies more in its capacity as the first of two final games before both sides head to Qatar World Cup in November.
Roberto Martinez and Rob Page have just the remainder of this week to work with their squads before finalising their selection plans ahead of the World Cup, meaning fringe squad members will be desperate to impress as they attempt to book their place on the plane to Qatar.
Tonight’s sides have met with regularity over the past decade. In fact, after meeting just eight times from 1949 to 1997, they have matched that number since 2012 - with tonight’s clash their ninth over that period.
Belgium superstar Kevin de Bruyne has even admitted to being bored by facing Wales in the run up to this one.
“I think half of my international career has been against Wales,” said De Bruyne, the Manchester City midfielder. “I don’t know why. It is a little bit boring. I think it is 12 times I have played them, it is always the same teams.”
While the quote was made more in jest than severity, it is worth noting that the head-to-head between the sides since 2012 have been remarkably even considering Belgium’s place among the presumed elite of international football.
Each side has two wins from the eight games, with the remaining four, including the two most recent, resulting in draws.
While attention will understandably be on the World Cup, Rob Page will be aware that a loss for his side here will condemn them to relegation into League B in the Nations League.
The Welsh have just one point from their four games in Group 4 but a win here would set them up for a relegation decider against Poland on Sunday.