Gritty Wales and Gareth Bale frustrate benign Belgium in Brussels
Wales (12/1 with Coral to win Pool B) were triumphant as they snatched a vital away point against Belgium, celebrating with fans at the final whistle as they deservedly remained top of Group B, buoyed by hopes of Euro 2016 qualification.
Whilst the Welsh defended stoutly, with resilient skipper Ashley Williams and centre back partner James Chester repelling Belgium’s late bombardment, the visitors were not without their own opportunities to steal three points.
Chris Coleman’s plan to defend and disrupt left Gareth Bale an isolated figure up front, limited to a curling free kick as his only influence on the first half. The Real Madrid wingman burst into life after the break, however, and was unsurprisingly the main threat to a Belgium defence clearly missing the boldness of captain Vincent Kompany.
The attack-minded introduction of George Williams for David Cotterill gave the Dragons another dimension, most notably psychologically, and afforded Bale more space and time on the ball.
As Belgium ramped up the pressure, Bale made the most of his restricted opportunities on the counter, flashing a low shot that could have fooled Thibaut Courtois just wide.
Later a plumb pass by the Madrid man, laid on for Neil Taylor, was wastefully fired over. With the Dragons defence sewn up, they just missed an extra spark and a foil for Bale in attack.
Eden Hazard, meanwhile, was the standout star for Belgium, and gave real hope to the frustrated home faithful that he would finally transfer his Chelsea form to the red shirt.
A constant threat, there was a notable buzz every time the 23-year-old dazzled and dared Wales’ rearguard, dancing through the defence on several occasions, but there were still no tangible results.
All too often there was no fellow Red Devil to apply the finishing touch to his wizardry, as possession and slick movement continuously met a dead end.
Despite the fantastic array of forwards on the pitch it was centre back Nicolas Lombaerts who threatened Wayne Hennessey most in the first half, with his sumptuous quick turn and strike rebounding off the far post.
Aston Villa striker Christian Benteke’s arrival after the break, at the expense of effective Nacer Chadli, forced the dynamic Divock Origi out wide, before he was replaced by Dries Mertens.
Whilst Benteke and Mertens did offer Belgium a more direct approach, there was still a concerning lack of end product. Marc Wilmots’ hand was forced into another change, however, as Mertens’ unfortunate clash of heads with Williams resulted in the Napoli attacker being stretchered off.
Enter Adnan Januzaj, whose weaving runs and accurate crosses almost saw the Dragons come undone.
Havoc unfolded as a Januzaj corner was met with power and precision by Benteke, but Wales weathered the late storm as Hennessey and Bale combined dramatically to clear off the line.
Stifled Belgium were undoubtedly left disappointed with just a point, but do still have a game in hand. Wily Wilmotts also has an abundance of attacking options at his disposal, many of whom began on the bench, including Benteke, Januzaj and Romelu Lukaku, to remedy their woes.
Coleman does not have that luxury, but his hardworking, organised outfit can take confidence from their continued unbeaten qualification campaign. The knowledge that, alongside Argentina, they are one of just two sides to stop Belgium (odds-on at 2/7 to win Group B) from scoring in their last 15 outings, won’t hurt their confidence when facing next opponents Israel.