Friday 30 September 2016

Wales and Gareth Bale inflict rare qualifier defeat on Belgium on famous night in Cardiff

Phil Blanche

Published 12/06/2015 | 21:52

Gareth Bale celebrates after scoring the winner for Wales
Reuters / Rebecca Naden
Gareth Bale celebrates after scoring the winner for Wales Reuters / Rebecca Naden

Wales produced one of the best victories in their history to beat Belgium 1-0 and take a massive step towards qualifying for next summer's European Championships.

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Belgium came into the game at the Cardiff City Stadium ranked second in the world and having lost only one of their last 17 matches but Gareth Bale's 25th minute goal - his 17th for his country - rewarded a heroic display.

Wales now have a three-point lead at the top of Group B with four games left to play and the victory means they will be among the top seeds for next month's World Cup draw in Russia.

Wales made two changes from the side which won in Israel in March for the Euro 2016 Group B table-topping clash with Belgium at the Cardiff City Stadium.

James Chester and Jazz Richards came in for injured defenders James Collins and Ben Davies as Wales manager Chris Coleman appeared to be adopting a 5-3-2 formation against opponents ranked second in the FIFA world rankings.

Kevin De Bruyne replaced the injured Marouane Fellaini in Belgium's only change from the side which beat France 4-3 in a Paris friendly last Sunday.

Belgium took to the field as news emerged that coach Marc Wilmots had been overlooked for the Schalke job he had been strongly tipped to take following this showdown between the top two teams in the group.

But the Red Devils were quickly into their stride and Christian Benteke was inches away from converting Dries Mertens' cross.

Wales were struggling to get hold of the ball but Gareth Bale sped past Jan Vertonghen to win a corner which Hal Robson-Kanu headed wide.

But it was rare respite for Wales and Neil Taylor's mistake allowed Mertens to set up Raja Nainggolan for a 20-yard shot which would have arrowed into the bottom corner of the net but for Wayne Hennessey's strong hand.

Belgium were playing some inventive stuff around the edge of Wales' penalty area and skipper Eden Hazard, who was at the heart of their attacks, fired a snapshot over.

Bale was desperately trying to impress on the occasion of his 50th cap and he was gifted his 17th international goal after 25 minutes when Nainggolan headed the ball back into his path and he beat Thibaut Curtois smartly after chesting the ball down.

Wales were in dreamland and it was only the second goal that Belgium had conceded in this Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.

But they suffered a blow moments later when Joe Allen tripped Hazard in full flow to pick up a booking which will rule him out of the next qualifier in Cyprus at the start of September.

Vertonghen wasted the free-kick when he drove his shot into the wall and Belgium were fortunate not to be further behind when Bale played in Aaron Ramsey down the right.

Courtois could not hold Ramsey's angled shot and Toby Alderweireld's poor clearance fell at the feet of Hal Robson-Kanu, who took it first time but sent it wide with much of Courtois' goal gaping.

Belgium were started to get frustrated and Mertens fired over, much to the delight of the home crowd and a huge roar from the Wales fans greeted the half-time whistle.

Belgium began the second half on the front foot after replacing Mertens with Romelu Lukaku for the Everton man to form a physical front two pairing with Benteke.

Hazard's corner almost found Benteke at the far post but Ashley Williams just did enough to protect his goal before Nainggolan and De Bruyne whistled efforts just wide of Hennessey's goal.

Robson-Kanu sent Richards' cross wide but it was pretty much becoming a siege as Belgium poured forward in search of the equaliser and Alderweireld fired wide before Hazard surged through and Chester completed a vital clearance.

Hazard was looking for little one-twos around the edge of the box or springing a third man through from midfield but Wales were holding a tight line and seeking to find Bale when they could.

They managed to do so on one occasion when Nicolas Lombaerts was forced into a cynical challenge to collect a booking but still Belgium kept coming and Alderweireld headed over De Bruyne's corner.

Wales were trying to take the sting out of the game whenever they could and Benteke showed his frustration by kicking out at Ramsey following a spell of home possession.

There was more head-shaking when Vertonghen struggled to keep De Bruyne's wayward cross-field pass in play and Wilmots responded by changing it to three at the back, withdrawing full-back Alderweireld and sending on striker Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco.

Wales had mostly managed to stop the danger around their area but Belgium's height made them a real threat from set-pieces and lofted balls into the box.

Vertonghen almost reached a De Bruyne corner which ran loose to the far post and then Chris Gunter showed excellent positional poise to deny the lurking Lukaku from under his own crossbar.

Every time a Belgian ball came into the Wales penalty area there seemed to be a defender in the way with skipper Williams leading by example.

Hennessey was grateful to fall on Ferreira-Carrasco's cross as the limping Bale was reduced to the role of passenger by what appeared to be cramp and replaced by Sam Vokes with three minutes remaining.

But Wales held on amid incredible scenes to take over the top of Group B and move closer to a place in France next summer.

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