KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTS: Belgium justified their status at the top of the FIFA rankings by opening their World Cup qualifying campaign with a 3-1 home win over Wales.
Roberto Martinez’s men, who finished third in the 2018 finals in Russia, ultimately ran out deserved winners after overcoming the shock of conceding an early goal after Connor Roberts and Gareth Bale set up Harry Wilson.
The Red Devils responded swiftly and decisively with an equaliser from Kevin De Bruyne and then a headed second goal from Thorgan Hazard. Romelu Lukaku settled the game with a second-half penalty.
The defeat was Wales’ first in a competitive match since June 2019, ending a national record of 11 games unbeaten. Belgium are unbeaten in competitive home matches since 2010.
Martinez praised his players “because we were playing without fans and will now be playing away games in a stadium when the hosts will have their supporters.”
He added: “It wasn’t easy. The conditions weren’t good for both teams. Wales were well set up. We were close to 70pc of possession in the first half but we created good opportunities and we saw the bravery of our players to control the game in the second half.
“Wales had outstanding individuals and could be very dangerous on the counter-attack. When a team like that scores a wonderful goal in the first move you know it is going to be a challenging game. Our players showed incredible personality in adversity.”
The other European Group E saw Estonia thrashed 6-2 at home by Czech Republic. West Ham midfielder Tomas Soucek scored a hat-trick as the Czechs came from behind after conceding an early goal to Rauno Sappinen.
World Cup holders France were held to a surprise home draw by Ukraine in Group D.
The world champions began confidently and went ahead through Antoine Griezmann but Ukraine held firm in defence and levelled when Serhiy Sydorchuk’s deflected shot wrong-footed France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
Finland drew 2-2 with Bosnia-Herzegovina. Norwich forward Teemu Pukki scored both goals for the hosts.
Netherlands suffered a surprise 4-2 defeat in Turkey in Group G.
The Dutch, runners up in 2010, fell behind when Burak Yilmaz’s deflected shot wrong-footed goalkeeper Tim Krul. Yilmaz then converted a penalty before Hakan Calhanoglu curled in a third.
Memphis Depay saw a late spot-kick saved for the Dutch, who threatened to fight back via goals from Davy Klaassen and Luuk de Jong, but Yilmaz’s superb free-kick rounded off the scoring.
In the other group games Norway won 3-0 away to Gibraltar and Montenegro won 2-1 away to Latvia.
Reigning European champions Portugal made a winning start to their qualifying campaign with a 1-0 win over Azerbaijan thanks to an own goal from Maksim Medvedev when a punched clearance by keeper Shahrudin Mahammadaliyev ricocheted back off the defender and into the net.
Cristiano Ronaldo failed to add to his international tally of 102 goals. Ronaldo is seven behind all-time leading international scorer Ali Daei, who has 109 goals.
The other Group A game saw Serbia concede an early goal before beating the Republic of Ireland 3-2 in Belgrade.
Alan Browne finished a well-worked Republic move to head the visitors into an 18th-minute lead. Dusan Vlahovic levelled for the hosts after 40 minutes before substitute Aleksandar Mitrovic struck twice. James Collins scored a late Irish consolation.
Serbia captain Dusan Tadic was outstanding, setting up all three of his side’s goals.