Belgium 1-1 Wales: An imperfect ending

Aaron Ramsey’s late equaliser took some of the gloss off Belgium’s final World Cup qualifier as Wales drew 1-1 in Belgium. Kevin De Bruyne’s opener ultimately was insufficient but in the end it was but a minor blip as Marc Wilmots’ men can look forward to a first major tournament in twelve years next summer in Brazil.

Even the Prime Minister and the King joined the Mexican wave.

Even the Prime Minister and the King joined the Mexican wave. [VRT]

It was rather appropriate given the celebatory nature of the occasion that the newly crowned King Filip was on hand to greet both sets of players before kick-off. Although close to 10,000 fans braved the inclement weather on Sunday to watch the first training session back on home soil, the victory in Croatia meant that this game would be the triumphant homecoming and celebration of not only the achievement itself but the huge strides made over the course of this qualification campaign.

Marc Wilmots made five changes to the side that sealed qualification with a 1-2 win in Zagreb. As slated well beforehand, Sébastien Pocognoli and Thomas Vermaelen came in at the back, with the Arsenal man captaining. Mousa Dembélé began in midfield alongside Witsel and De Bruyne, whose positional shift allowed Mirallas to start, while Nacer Chadli took Hazard’s spot on the left in support of last Friday’s superhero Romelu Lukaku.

As has often been the case in this campaign, les Diables Rouges eased their way into proceedings and if anything, Wales were more comfortable but one of the hallmarks of this team under Wilmots has been resistance to panic, an ability to manage the game efficiently and patience when not everything is running smoothly. It’s tempting to say these are the kinds of attributes that would stand a team in good stead in the pressure cooker situation of a tournament in the hotbed of football, Brazil.

The game failed to kick into life in the first half resulting in a Mexican wave going all around the national stadium. Even the Prime Minister, King Philippe and the head of the Belgian FA, François De Keersmacker, all joined in. It might have been indicative of a lacklustre affair but it was also a sign of the party atmosphere, which now accompanies Belgian home games. How times have changed. Toby Alderweireld’s deflected shot hit the crossbar towards the end of the opening 45 minutes as Belgium went up a gear but de Rode Duivels were unable to break the deadlock in the first half.

Kevin De Bruyne celebrates his fourth goal of the campaign.

Kevin De Bruyne celebrates his fourth goal of the campaign.

Eden Hazard came on just before the hour in an effort to reinvigorate the side and inject energy and quality in the final third, just as he had done in the 2-0 in at home to Scotland when his second half introduction inspired the side to turn a 0-0 scoreline into a 2-0 win. Three minutes after his introduction he hooked a right-footed shot wide of Hennessey’s goal after Lukaku had teed him up. Shortly afterwards, he jinked past two men and was this time denied by the Welsh goalkeeper.

Hazard may have been the catalyst for the greater purpose shown in the second half but it was Kevin De Bruyne, who ultimately decided the outcome of the game. Lukaku again helped the ball on to an attacking player coming from deep and once De Bruyne had taken the ball past his man and reached the penalty box, there was little doubt he would score his fourth goal of the campaign. He drove his shot past Hennessey with the confidence of a man who although well down the pecking order at Chelsea,  has been the best Belgian player over the course of the ten games.

Victory looked probable, if not certain and as such Marc Wilmots decided to take care of business. Having allowed himself to crack a smile when Axel Witsel, who played every minute of the qualifiers, tried the spectacular and volleyed wide, he introduced Zakaria Bakkali in place of Kevin Mirallas. Thank God it’s over!

Thibaut Courtois will have to settle for just the six clean sheets(!)

Thibaut Courtois will have to settle for just the six clean sheets(!)

Unfortunately, Aaron Ramsey continued his outstanding goalscoring form and equalised late on to give Craig Bellamy an assist in his final international for Wales. Marc Wilmots couldn’t hide his displeasure and his demanding nature was on show again tonight despite the fact that there wasn’t quite as much at stake. Of course, we cannot complain too much. Belgium won the group by nine points and didn’t lose a single game. Qualification was in the bag before the final round of fixtures and no team had a better defensive record.

These wonderful achievements won’t be taken for granted by the millions of fans with long and painful memories of a series of failed qualification campaigns. It wasn’t that many moons ago that Belgium conceded four at home to Austria, as many as they conceded in the ten games of this campaign. Full credit must go to the outstanding Thibaut Courtois (who also played every minute) whom Marc Wilmots would not swap for any other goalkeeper in the world. He’s had to patrol his goal behind a rotating cast of defenders (including Gillet!) but often stepped up to the plate when required and has been one of the cornerstones on which this relative success has been built.

It was almost inevitable that the occasion tonight would have a sense of being after the Lord Mayor’s show but that’s no bad thing. It keeps the players humble, not that Wilmots would allow anything else. Wilmots and Belgium have climbed what once must have seemed an impossible mountain. Now, the hard work begins in earnest ahead of an even greater challenge in Brazil next June.

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