Jan Vertonghen strikes late to seal Belgium victory over 10-man Wales
On a night when the odds were always going to be stacked strongly in Belgium’s favour, a moment of madness from James Collins left Wales with an impossible task as their World Cup qualifying campaign began with a brave defeat. The West Ham United central defender could have no complaints after he received a straight red card for a dangerous lunge on Guillaume Gillet only 25 minutes into a match that Belgium, with their formidable line-up, might have expected to win much more comfortably.
Instead, Marc Wilmots’s side were made to work hard for a victory that came courtesy of Vincent Kompany’s header just before the interval and a sublime Jan Vertonghen strike late on that put to bed any thoughts Wales had of salvaging an unlikely point.
Wales played with spirit and courage but the reality is that this game was effectively over as a contest from the moment that Collins had a rush of blood to the head. Stefan Johannesson, the Swedish referee, was right on the spot and had no option but to point Collins towards the tunnel.
Down to 10 men and a goal behind, Wales could easily have imploded at that stage, but Chris Coleman’s side hung on as they frustrated Belgium with their dogged defending.
At the other end, Wales chances were at a premium, although the indefatigable Gareth Bale did come close to hauling the his side level just before the hour mark with a vicious free-kick that Thibaut Courtois brilliantly repelled. Boaz Myhill was unable to do likewise when the ball was teed up for Vertonghen to thunder home in the 82nd minute.
The home supporters could have been forgiven for fearing the worst before a ball had been kicked. As if coming up against a Belgium starting XI replete with household names and worth £140m in transfer fees was not bad enough, there was the depressing news 45 minutes before kick-off that Joe Allen had been ruled out after feeling unwell. Losing the Liverpool midfielder was just about the last thing Coleman needed after already being without the services of Craig Bellamy and Neil Taylor, as well as a number of squad players.
The Wales manager had little option but to put square pegs in round holes as he set his side up in a 4-1-4-1 formation that was serving them reasonably well until Collins was sent off, forcing Coleman to tear up the script yet again.
The incident came about after Eden Hazard had picked up the ball deep in the Belgium half, the midfielder pirouetting away from trouble before releasing Marouane Fellaini, who moved the ball onto Gillet in the centre of the pitch. There was, in other words, no immediate danger to the Wales goal, but Collins lunged ridiculously at Gillet, catching the full-back with his studs well after the ball had gone. So much for Fifa Fair Play day.
Up until that point Wales had restricted Belgium to few meaningful efforts on goal while offering a sporadic threat on the counter attack. Dave Edwards, running onto a Steve Morison flick-on, hit the side-netting in the 10th minute and Bale, who worked tirelessly to try to make things happen, had the Wales fans off their seats moments later with a moment of brilliance on the right flank.
Left one-on-one with Dries Mertens, Bale skipped around the winger with ease, reaching the byline and darting towards the six-yard-box only to get too much on a cross that sailed beyond the red shirts in the Belgium penalty area.
Belgium were struggling to find their rhythm, the visitors lacking that little bit of composure around the area as they snatched at opportunities. There was a moment of consternation for Wales midway through the first half when Mertens swung in a vicious cross, but Collins, in a superb piece of defending that was soon to be forgotten, got in front of Thomas Vermaelen and headed the ball over his own crossbar.
With Ashley Williams dropping back from midfield to his more familiar role in central defence in the wake of Collins’s dismissal, Wales were just about managing to keep Belgium at bay and it looked like they might go in at half-time on level terms. Those hopes were extinguished, however, when Kompany outjumped Darcy Blake to thump a near post header from Mertens’s corner beyond Myhill.
It felt like the floodgates might open at that point but Wales, to their immense credit, refused to surrender and continued to make life awkward for Belgium. Bale drilled a 25-yard free-kick in the 59th minute that was arrowing towards the top corner until Courtois flung himself to his left to tip the ball behind.
Coleman threw his head back in despair and there was more frustration moments later when Williams’s close-range header was deflected behind. They were, though, rare Wales attacks and it was no real surprise when Vertonghen added a second.
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