KEVIN DE BRUYNE upstaged Gareth Bale with a masterclass to inflict an early blow to Wales’ 2022 World Cup hopes.
Dragons captain Bale admitted his final ambition on his football to-do list is to play in the Qatar finals next winter.
But, after Wales scored one of their best goals in recent memory when Harry Wilson completed a stunning team move, the world’s No 1 ranked side showed just why they are a class above.
And this defeat in Leuven also highlights how tough Bale and Co will find it to qualify automatically from Group E.
Manchester City midfielder De Bruyne was the talisman, drawing Roberto Martinez’s side level with a rasping 25-yard drive.
The emphatic strike maintained his red-hot scoring form, with his fifth goal in his last four games for club and country.
Goals from Thorgan Hazard and Romelu Lukaku’s second half penalty made sure of the points in a convincing victory – and ensured there was no repeat of Belgium’s shock Euro 2016 quarter-final exit to the Welsh.
Robert Page, standing in for the absent Ryan Giggs for a second time with the Wales boss on special leave by the Welsh FA following allegations of assault which he denies, now needs to rally his squad before the crunch Group E qualifier with the Czech Republic in Cardiff next Tuesday,
Euro 2020 finalists Wales have not qualified for a World Cup since 1958.
And the Dragons hopes of ending that wait were dealt an early blow when Joe Allen – back after a year out following a ruptured Achilles – limped off with a hamstring injury.
Caretaker boss Page will be praying Allen’s latest fitness problem does not rule him out of the Czech clash.
Yet the setback to midfield controller Allen did not deter the visitors as they conjured up a magnificent goal in the tenth minute to stun the star-studded Red Devils.
A remarkable 17-pass move – with every outfield player touching the ball at least once – began with Liverpool’s Neco Williams on the left flank and ended with Wilson stroking the ball past Thibaut Courtois.
It was total football at its best, the sort that will be replayed on television and online for weeks and months to come.
Bale was involved three times in the slick passing, and after receiving a pass from wing-back Connor Roberts, the Tottenham forward assisted Cardiff attacker Wilson, who beat the Real Madrid goalkeeper with a cool first-time finish.
Wilson’s fifth goal for his country – and his second in as many internationals – was the dream start for Wales, but the superb team goal only triggered Belgium into action.
Page’s men were sent a warning when Lukaku missed a sitter from close range after a blistering cross from de Bruyne.
It was a major let-off for Wales and the hosts were slowly but surely starting to gain a grip on the contest so it was no surprise when the equaliser came midway through the first half.
Hazard squared to De Bruyne, who took one touch and then unleashed a fierce drive past Leicester’s Danny Ward from 25 yards.
De Bruyne’s strike was of the highest quality and Belgium were dominant and on the front foot.
The Red Devils, who were unbeaten in competitive home matches since a defeat to Germany in 2010, went ahead on 28 minutes.
But, while De Bruyne showed his supreme class for a fifth goal in his last four games for club and country, Hazard’s header came in fortunate circumstances.
The qualifier had been moved from Brussels to nearby Leuven due to Covid-19 restrictions yet the patchy pitch at the Den Dreef stadium appeared to be short of elite standard and played a part in Belgium’s second goal of the night.
There appeared to be little danger when Thomas Meunier crossed from the right wing.
But Swansea defender Roberts slipped on the suspect surface and Borussia Dortmund wideman Hazard powered past Ward from six yards.
Page’s Wales had it all to do with Belgium ending the first half with a whopping 77 per cent of the possession.
The Dragons started the second period brightly, with Bale looking lively as he searched for a way to drag his team-mates back into the tie.
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Bale could not direct his ambitious overhead effort wide after Dan James had recycled the ball.
James had two opportunities but the Manchester United winger failed to hit the target on either occasion.
And Belgium secured the win when Chris Mepham hacked down Dries Mertens and Lukaku sent Ward the wrong way to score his 58th international goal and inflict Wales’ first defeat in 12 competitive games.