Wales came away with another magical moment against Belgium but Harry Wilson’s wonderful strike proved insufficient as they fell to defeat in their opening World Cup qualifier.
Wilson rounded off a slick team move to earn an early lead but the side ranked No 1 in the world responded in style, Kevin De Bruyne blasting in from distance before a Thorgan Hazard header primed Belgium for a comfortable comeback victory, with Romelu Lukaku sealing the win from the penalty spot.
Wales’s finest moment came when these sides last met five years ago when Hal Robson-Kanu, then a free agent, nonchalantly turned Thomas Meunier and Axel Witsel on the penalty spot before beating Thibaut Courtois to propel Chris Coleman’s side into the Euro 2016 semi-finals.
A lot has changed since but Meunier and Courtois were among seven players across both teams to start that day in Lille for this duel across the border in Leuven.
For Wales, Gareth Bale and Joe Allen were the only survivors but the latter was forced off with a hamstring injury after seven minutes. So it was over to Bale inspire a youthful Wales team and how he delivered.
Joe Morrell, who replaced Allen, nipped in to prevent Lukaku stealing possession and found Chris Mepham, who scooped the ball into Wilson on halfway. Wales streamed forward down the right, with Bale picking out Connor Roberts on the overlap, flicking the ball into his path with the outside of his left boot and three divine touches later, including another sumptuous Bale pass, Wilson swept the ball into the far corner to crown a magnificent counterattack.
The warning signs, unsurprisingly, stemmed from De Bruyne. The Manchester City midfielder sent a blistering cross into the six-yard box from the right, only for Lukaku to spoon over but then De Bruyne took matters into his own hands. Hazard fizzed the ball infield to De Bruyne, who set himself with his first touch and then lashed a thunderous right-footed shot into the corner with his second. Belgium began to stretch their legs and six minutes later Hazard helped Roberto Martínez’s side to take the lead.
Meunier’s hanging cross looped towards the back post and Roberts’s untimely slip allowed Hazard a free header at goal, which he sent into the bottom corner.
For the fourth successive game it was down to the former Wales defender Robert Page and Albert Stuivenberg, one of Mikel Arteta’s assistants at Arsenal, to lead the team in the continued absence of Giggs. On the face of it the manager, who is on bail until May having denied allegations of assault and actual bodily harm, appears far removed but continues to influence team selection and is in daily dialogue with his coaching staff.
Wales returned reinvigorated after the break. Bale was the ringleader and the on-loan Tottenham forward afforded himself a wry smile after attempting to pull Wales level with an overhead kick.
Daniel James did superbly to keep Roberts’s cross alive at the back post, hooking the ball back across goal, but Bale’s acrobatics were in vain as he failed to make clean contact. Wales operated without a striker per se – Wilson played as a false nine before being replaced by Tyler Roberts with half an hour to play. James flashed a shot wide and, at the other end De Bruyne, rattled the side netting as Belgium sought to kill the game.
Wales gifted Belgium a chance to seal the turnaround when Mepham clumsily upended Dries Mertens in the box, leaving the referee Cuneyt Cakir no choice but to award a penalty. Danny Ward failed to claw a Meunier cross to safety and Mepham panicked, wildly swinging a leg at Mertens. Lukaku sent Ward, again preferred to Wayne Hennessey in goal, the wrong way and Belgium had successfully punctured all of Wales’s early optimism.