If this was Kevin De Bruyne when he is bored, then Belgium’s World Cup opponents would be right to quiver at the prospect of the damage he could do when he is in the mood.
De Bruyne recently told how he had grown tired of playing Wales – this was the ninth meeting between these sides in the past 10 years and the fourth in the past 18 months – but he scored a sumptuous goal and set up another for Michy Batshuayi to put them en route to a Nations League victory.
Things looked ominous for Wales at the interval given Belgium should have been out of sight; De Bruyne cannoned a shot against the woodwork, Youri Tielemans skewed wide, Eden Hazard curled a shot just past a post and Batshuayi spooned another over.
But if anything reflected how things stagnated for Belgium it was the sight of Roberto Martínez, one of the most placid and mild-mannered characters in the game, receiving the first red card of his managerial career after time-wasting.
“It is a new experience,” Martínez said. “I was surprised. I probably should have let the ball go and that’s it but the moment I kicked the ball [away] … I accept the referee’s decision.”
In truth, Wales were fortunate to trail by only two goals at the interval but the way they responded should offer them encouragement for their first World Cup in 64 years. It is 60 days until they kick-off in Doha against the USA and in the end, despite a deflating first half, there was no shortage of causes for optimism. Brennan Johnson’s fearlessness proved a catalyst as Wales plotted a route back into the game, his cross teeing up Kieffer Moore’s header, and Johnson pulled a shot wide five minutes from time after latching on to Connor Roberts’s layoff.
“It is a great lesson for us,” said the Wales manager, Rob Page, who switched to 5-4-1 at the break. “Every time we pressed high they played through us. We changed that at half-time and dropped a little bit deeper and changed the shape.”
Gareth Bale arrived as a 64th-minute substitute but Aaron Ramsey, Ben Davies and Joe Allen were all missing through injury. Romelu Lukaku was a notable absentee for Belgium and perhaps it should have been no surprise that they purred their way through a one-sided first half and fired like a well-oiled machine given seven of their starting lineup also began their Euro 2016 quarter-final defeat to Wales, with the goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey the sole survivor from that day.
Wales actually began brightly but found the going tough from the moment De Bruyne opened the scoring on 10 minutes, capping a typically slick Belgium move.
Thomas Meunier whisked a clever first-time pass into the right channel for Batshuayi, who spied De Bruyne to his left. What happened next felt both delightful and spiteful, painful from a Wales perspective. De Bruyne advanced towards the edge of the box and side-footed a first-time shot at goal, squeezing his effort past Hennessey, powerless to prevent the ball nestling in the corner. De Bruyne’s artistry caused no end of problems and his perfect cross towards the back post eight minutes before the break presented Batshuayi with a tap-in.
Martínez was among those left purring. “It is a message to all our fans: Don’t take for granted watching Kevin De Bruyne play,” he said. “I think he is the most incredible playmaker in world football at this present time, his way of seeing the game, his understanding of time and space, and then the execution as well. I thought his performance was magical but he has been doing that consistently. Sometimes I look at him and we’re so, so lucky to have a player like Kevin.”
De Bruyne departed to a warm ovation during six minutes of second-half stoppage time but those of a Welsh persuasion may have had other names on their lips, so strongly did Wales finish the game. “It was a game of two halves,” Johnson said. “In the first half, we lacked a lot of belief, we didn’t know how good we could be, and especially what we could bring going forward. We didn’t show any of that. In the second half we came out with a different mentality and did ourselves proud. Rob Page told us to believe ourselves, to show why we’re here, and I think we did that.”