Belgium wins Group E opener, Czech Republic thrashes Estonia
BRUSSELS (AP) — Top-ranked Belgium produced a subdued but controlled display to start its qualifying campaign for the 2022 World Cup with a 3-1 win over Wales on Wednesday, while Czech Republic hammered Estonia 6-2 in the group’s other game.
After conceding an early goal, the Belgians quickly recovered with goals from Kevin De Bruyne, Thorgan Hazard and Romelu Lukaku to put an end to their four-game winless run against Wales and avenge a 3-1 loss at the 2016 European championship in their previous meeting.
“We were very confident and we managed to turn the situation around,” Belgium midfielder Thomas Meunier said.
In Lublin, Estonia scored an early goal but could not hold on to its lead as Tomas Soucek netted a hat trick for the Czechs.
The Belgians, who top the FIFA world rankings, travel to the Czech Republic on Saturday in Group E.
Having lost midfielder Joe Allen just seven minutes into the match because of muscle injury, Wales looked set for a difficult evening at Den Dreef stadium in the city of Leuven.
But it was instead the hosts who were caught cold after a succession of quick passes that opened the Belgium defense on the break. The move was concluded by Harry Wilson, who beat Thibaut Courtois with a low shot from Gareth Bale’s first-touch assist.
Belgium was left unimpressed and got a quick equalizer. Lurking near the box unmarked, De Bruyne was set up by Hazard, found some space and unleashed a precise shot from the edge of the area into the net in the 22nd minute.
Wales was made to pay for its sloppy defending six minutes later as Hazard connected with a cross from Meunier at the far post and headed home after his marker fell down on the turf.
Belgium then took control of the midfield as Wales struggled to string passes together.
The visitors imposed a strong press at the start of the second half and pushed higher up the pitch, but struggled to create chances despite enjoying more possession. Belgium doubled its lead after Chris Mepham fouled Dries Mertens in the box as Lukaku — Belgium’s all-time top scorer — cooly converted from the spot to score his 58th goal in 90 matches with the national team.