Belgium 3-1 Wales: De Bruyne the difference as Red Devils start with a win

By Sports Desk March 24, 2021

Belgium got their World Cup qualification campaign up and running as Kevin De Bruyne inspired them to a 3-1 comeback win over Wales.

In the first meeting of the teams since Wales' memorable 3-1 triumph in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, the world's number one ranked side fell behind to Harry Wilson's 10th-minute opener.

Gareth Bale was central to Wales' opener, though Belgium's star player subsequently stepped up, levelling proceedings with a stunning effort.

Thorgan Hazard completed the turnaround six minutes later and, after a bright second-half performance from Wales, Roberto Martinez's team sealed a strong start to Group E through Romelu Lukaku's penalty.

Wales suffered a blow when Joe Allen hobbled off injured in the eighth minute, yet the visitors were celebrating a wonderfully worked goal moments later.

Bale was the heart of the 17-pass move, threading a perfect first-time throughball into the path of Wilson, who calmly slotted home.

De Bruyne's sensational right-wing cross handed Lukaku a golden chance to restore parity, only for the Inter forward to blaze over.

Wales' luck did not last, though, with De Bruyne taking full advantage of being given space and time 25 yards out – the Manchester City star's strike clipping in off the right-hand upright.

Wearing the number 10 shirt typically taken by his older brother Eden, Hazard got the assist for De Bruyne's equaliser, and the Borussia Dortmund playmaker turned scorer when he steered Thomas Meunier's cross home.

No stranger to magnificent overhead kicks, Bale could have equalised early in the second half, but failed to make full contact with an acrobatic attempt.

Lukaku saw a shot well blocked with 24 minutes remaining and De Bruyne sliced wide on the rebound.

But Wales' lingering hopes were quashed when Chris Mepham flung a boot at Dries Mertens and Lukaku drilled in from 12 yards to make sure of the victory.

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  • Morocco v Spain: Gavi knows pass masters must learn from Japan upset Morocco v Spain: Gavi knows pass masters must learn from Japan upset

    Gavi is retaining faith in Spain's style of player even if the impressive teenage star knows La Rojo must learn from the mistakes made against Japan when they face Morocco in the last 16 of the World Cup.

    Spain were on course to top Group E when Alvaro Morata headed an early opener on Wednesday, but goals from Ritsu Doan and Ao Tanaka helped the Samurai Blue leapfrog their opponents in stunning fashion.

    For three incredible minutes, Spain even looked set to join Germany in making an early exit as Costa Rica briefly occupied second place.

    Spain ultimately survived despite seeing their seven-match unbeaten run (excluding shoot-outs) at the World Cup halted, and Gavi says Tuesday's game represents a chance to right some wrongs.

    "The match against Japan has to serve as a lesson for what is to come. Luckily, that defeat has been resolved and we are clear about what we have to do," Gavi told Marca.

    "We are in the round of 16 and there are some very good teams that haven't been able to do it. That's why we have to really think that pressure is a privilege."

    Spain completed 2,489 passes in their group-stage campaign, their most at a single tournament on record (since 1966), while their tally of 969 passes against Japan was a record for a losing team at the tournament.

    While Morocco showed their counter-attacking quality to claim four points from games against Croatia and Belgium, Gavi believes Spain must stick to their principles.

    "We are not going to lose focus on the goal, which is to win the World Cup," he added. 

    "We are going to look for it by being faithful to what we have been doing all these years. It would be a mistake to give up everything we believe in."

    Morocco are featuring in the knockout stages of a World Cup for just the second time, having been beaten at this stage by West Germany in 1986.

    The Atlas Lions are chasing a slice of history on Tuesday, when they could match the longest unbeaten run managed by an African side at the World Cup – currently Cameroon's five-game sequence between 1982 and 1990.

    After a 2-1 win over Canada ensured Morocco topped Group F, coach Walid Regragui called for his side to aim high.

    "We didn't come just to say 'oh, we almost got close'," he said. "We need to get the results as all the European or South American teams do. We need to emulate them."

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    Morocco – Hakim Ziyech 

    While Romain Saiss and Nayef Aguerd are likely to be busy in the Morocco backline, Regragui's men will carry a threat at the other end – chiefly through Chelsea creator Ziyech.

    Ziyech has played more passes into the box (17) and created more chances (4) than any other Morocco player at the World Cup, as well as leading his team-mates for ball carries (43) and combined distance carried (477.6 metres).

    While Ziyech's counter-attacking prowess is clear, he also scored his first World Cup goal last time out, and the 29-year-old could be a thorn in Spain's side.

    Spain – Alvaro Morata

    While Barcelona playmakers Gavi and Pedri have stolen the headlines for Spain in Qatar, fine margins can often decide knockout games – and Morata's contribution could be key. 

    Though maligned by some, Morata has been consistent in front of goal at this tournament, hitting the net on each of his three appearances despite playing a total of just 126 minutes.

    Morata started two of Spain's three knockout games at Euro 2020 last year, and if he can reward Luis Enrique's faith with another goal, he will join David Villa as just the second Spanish player to score in four consecutive World Cup matches.

    PREDICTION

    Spain have never lost in their three previous meetings with Morocco (W2 D1), and Opta's prediction model makes them strong favourites to advance to the last eight, giving them a 61.3 per cent chance of victory.

    However, Morocco did claim a 2-2 draw in the teams' only previous World Cup contest in 2018, and a repeat – which would mean extra-time and potentially penalties – is given a 24 per cent chance. 

    The Atlas Lions have provided one of the great underdog stories of this tournament, but their chances of an historic victory are rated at just 14.7 per cent, making them big outsiders.

  • Luis Enrique refuses to focus on the negatives ahead of Morocco meeting Luis Enrique refuses to focus on the negatives ahead of Morocco meeting

    Spain coach Luis Enrique is refusing to look at the negatives from his side's loss to Japan, instead pointing to how well La Roja played across their World Cup group stage games.

    Japan beat Spain 2-1 on Thursday to secure top spot in Group E, setting up a last-16 tie with Croatia while also condemning Germany to an early exit.

    Spain had 82.3 per cent of the possession and attempted 1,058 passes to Japan's 228, and had 12 shots, with five hitting the target.

    However, Spain's efforts only accumulated to 1.04 expected goals (xG), whereas Japan's six attempts added up to a combined xG of 1.45, with Ritsu Doan and Junya Ito scoring in the space of three second-half minutes.

    If reports in the Spanish media are to be believed, former Barcelona coach Luis Enrique might be replaced as Spain boss after the World Cup, but ahead of Tuesday's last-16 tie with Morocco, he has full conviction in his approach.

    "We are talking about 270 minutes if I'm not wrong, plus added time [in the group stage]," Luis Enrique said in a press conference when he was asked if his team failed to recover from setbacks during matches. 

    "Out of 300 minutes in total, you focus on 10 minutes that you didn't like. As far as we progress, you will see more of these minutes.

    "We are footballers and the opponents also play. There are things to be improved, and I'm sure we will be bitten by Morocco in some moments of the game.

    "We can't take blows? What about them? Did Germany take it well when we scored? We are in a competition where the score dictates the risk you are willing to take.

    "Other teams pull back but we keep attacking and of course we need to improve that."

    Asked if his team lacked the experience required to see out spells of pressure, Luis Enrique replied: "It's such a cliche, we have to try and get rid of this idea.

    "I don't believe they lacked experience. Experience in what? Being builders, carpenters? When you lose, people talk about issues and if you win, they don't.

    "I don't share this analysis. This team will be recognised by the way we play, analyse our matches, our philosophy but not these sorts of issues.

    "Mistakes happen, we are talking about a very complex, unfair sport, 11 players on a huge field, it's impossible to control all the aspects.

    "At the end of the day the ones making the decisions are the players, I want them to implement my idea and I want them to buy the whole package when they lose, it's not fair to only buy it when we win."

    Spain have only made it beyond the round of 16 once at the last four World Cups, when they went on to win the trophy in South Africa in 2010. This record, though, is of no concern to Luis Enrique.

    "This is not our usual trend, to look at everything from a negative perspective," he said.

    "I am not concerned about those results. I want to control the things I can control as a coach. I want my team to play in a certain way, I want my players to forget about the result.

    "Football is not fair but if you have more merit you usually win the game. I am convinced we will have more merit than Morocco. Our objective was to play seven games, so we want to play seven games."

  • Gatland makes sensational Wales return to replace Pivac Gatland makes sensational Wales return to replace Pivac

    Warren Gatland has agreed to make a sensational return to the Wales head coach role after Wayne Pivac was relieved of his duties.

    Pivac paid the price for defeats against New Zealand, Georgia and Australia last month.

    New Zealander Pivac replaced his compatriot Gatland after the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, but has fallen short of expectations.

    Gatland, who had such a successful first 12-year spell serving Wales, will leave his position with Super Rugby side the Chiefs to take charge in the Six Nations, the World Cup in France next year and potentially through to the 2027 tournament in Australia.

    Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) CEO Steve Phillips said: "This is one of the toughest calls to make in sport, but the review process has reached its conclusion and we have acted quickly and efficiently in the very best interests of our national team.

    "Ultimately we are in the results business and we have agreed with Wayne that the current trajectory for Wales is not where we want it to be and we thank him sincerely for his time, enthusiasm, diligence and effort, which is unquestioned, as head coach over the last three years."

    Gatland masterminded Six Nations Grand Slams in 2008 and 2012, then won the Six Nations in 2019.

    "I'm very much looking forward to returning to coach Wales," said Gatland.

    "This is an opportunity to achieve something with a talented group of players in a country so passionate about rugby. A country which made my family and I so welcome, when we first arrived 15 years ago, and all the time we were there.

    "Our immediate priority is obviously the 2023 Guinness Six Nations and next year's Rugby World Cup.

    "There is little time for sentiment, professional sport is all about preparation, values and results. There will be new challenges as there always is with a change in head coach, but for me the environment, the players and their families will always come first.

    "We must prepare to the best of our ability in the time available. We will value and respect each other, we will work hard and, if we get this right together, performances and results will follow."

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