Rarely do you see a match with implications for finals places and relegation treated as an opportunity for experimentation by managers, yet Wales’ visit to Belgium provided that opportunity to Rob Page and Roberto Martinez because of the proximity of the World Cup.
Michy Batshuayi and Kevin de Bruyne finished clinically to ensure the hosts remained within three points of the Netherlands and kept alive their chances of winning the group and being in the Nations League finals in June 2023. Romelu Lukaku, who had a minor thigh issue, was not risked in attack.
The initial absence of Gareth Bale, who entered as a substitute, was a sensible decision by Page after the captain joined the squad late following an LAFC game on Monday, and it also gave the Wales manager the chance to test his other potentially key goal threats – initially Brennan Johnson, Kieffer Moore and Dan James – in attack.
Here are a few lessons we learned from the 2-1 victory for the Red Devils.
— UEFA Nations League (@EURO2024) September 22, 2022
Hazard dispels any doubts for World Cup
One of the most important elements for Martinez was the opportunity to assess Eden Hazard, who needs to prove his fitness after another intermittent season with Real Madrid so far. Hazard has seen time on the field with Los Blancos this season in place of the injured Karim Benzema, but his performances have been spotty.
A national team starting berth as captain all but confirmed Hazard’s place in the squad for the finals despite his general lack of club form, and he backed up that vote of confidence from the boss on the field. The three-time Belgium Player of the Year provided welcome flashes of genius in his highly productive 65 minutes of action before making way for Leandro Trossard.
Hazard formed part of a three-man attack alongside Batshuayi and Kevin De Bruyne, who were both on commanding form throughout, with the latter unfortunate not to score more than once.
Attack on top form for Belgium
Michy Batshuayi deputised impressively for Lukaku up front, while in midfield, Yannick Carrasco repeatedly turned Connor Roberts one way and the next. While Wales focused on thwarting Hazard, Youri Tielemans found space as part of an exceptional off-the-ball performance from his team.
Carrasco hit the post after De Bruyne had gone close in a move that was ruled offside, then Hazard swung a shot narrowly wide after Roberts did well to narrow the Champions League winner’s options inside the penalty area on the left.
Belgium may need their creative players to be on menacing form from the off in Qatar, where they find themselves in a tricky group containing Canada, Morocco and Croatia and are likely to face Spain or Germany if they reach the round of 16.
At the back, too, they looked largely assured before Moore replied for Wales with an expert header after 50 minutes.
Martinez gave a debut to Zeno Debast, an 18-year-old from Anderlecht who has been fast-tracked to the senior squad from the under-19s. Debast was targeted for the only Wales goal, poorly tracking a cross as he failed to contest a header with Kieffer Moore, but overall put in a solid shift for a young player.
The manager hardly set an example for the youngester when he was dismissed from the technical area in added time after an apparent altercation with a ballboy.
— Belgian Red Devils (@BelRedDevils) September 22, 2022
Wide areas will worry Wales
Even the most indomitable of defences would be stretched by Belgium’s playmakers when they are on form, but Wales looked distinctly susceptible to such attacks during a display that will have encouraged their scheduled World Cup group stage opponents of the USA, England and Iran.
The USA’s ‘MMA’ midfield of Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah will fancy themselves to cause chaos when they play Wales on this evidence, with Tim Weah, Christian Pulisic and Brenden Aaronson capable of inflicting the kind of damage Belgium did in the face of generosity from defenders.
England, meanwhile, have the likes of Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish who can drift towards the flanks and seize on space to lethal effect, while Iran have pace and trickery in wide positions through Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Amirhossein Hosseinzadeh and Sardar Azmoun, the Bayer Leverkusen forward whose link-up play has seen him coveted by Premier League suitors.
Wales showed admirable resilience and determination to stop Belgium from increasing their lead before Batshuayi made it two, making it all the more important for the side who are returning to the World Cup for the first time since 1958 to take any chances they fashion.
Moore could not make the most of scraps inside the penalty area for much of the game and James delivered a cross that was all too easy for Courtois to gather after good work by Johnson to make Carrasco defend at the expense of a corner.
Page’s side deserved their reply and came close to a late equaliser after scoring for the 12th match in succession.
The result meant Wales remain three points behind Poland, who they play on Matchday 6, in the bottom place that would mean relegation from the Nations League elite.
They may be on the brink of losing their place in Group A but Wales proved their credentials again with a much-improved second-half showing as they played their part in an entertaining game against the highest-ranked team in Europe.
Page will not be troubled by this result after an exacting summer that was all about his team reaching the World Cup during those hard-earned World Cup qualifier victories over Austria and Ukraine.
With the re-introduction of Bale and tighter defending, Wales’ return to the finals could produce a place in the knockout stage for a third successive major tournament.