With 166 days to go until Wales begin their World Cup campaign against the USA at the Al Rayyan Stadium in Qatar, every game counts as preparation. Gareth Bale entered for the final 18 minutes as a much-changed team from the one that overcame Ukraine on Sunday were edged out by the Netherlands in a topsy-turvy finish that ended with the Burnley striker Wout Weghorst scoring a brilliant diving header in stoppage time, 100 seconds after Rhys Norrington-Davies cancelled out Teun Koopmeiners’ precise opener with a fine header himself.
This was Wales’s first home defeat since losing to Denmark in November 2018 but there is a much bigger picture now at play.
The atmosphere was always going to be muted in comparison to the feverish scenes here four days ago but fans on the concourses were still revelling in stories from an unforgettable night – for many this game served as an extension of the celebrations.
Before kick-off Wales supporters serenaded Danny Ward, one of seven changes, but Leicester’s backup goalkeeper was forced off at the interval after aggravating a knee problem and replaced by Stoke’s Adam Davies. Ward was not due to start but Wayne Hennessey reported an injury a few hours before kick-off.
Brennan Johnson, arguably the Championship’s player of the season, for Nottingham Forest, who started on the right of a front three, showed a couple of neat touches, flicking the ball on for Dylan Levitt and later pirouetting clear of his marker, while Norrington-Davies impressed at left wing-back.
Wales struggled to create clear openings but levelled two minutes into second-half added time when Norrington-Davies leapt above Hans Hateboer at the back post to meet Connor Roberts’s sweeping cross with a powerful header. But naive play from Wales allowed the substitute Frenkie de Jong to motor forward from inside his own half, ride a couple of challenges and spread play to Tyrell Malacia, whose cross was converted by Weghorst.
The Netherlands manager, Louis van Gaal, was able to see the funny side, jokingly patting himself on the back afterwards for keeping Weghorst on and ignoring the temptation to introduce Memphis Depay.
Bale said: “The boys who came in worked very hard to get the equaliser. Then to concede so early after that was gutting but it’s something we have to learn, maybe the dark arts of taking him down. We need to learn from this. They’re a world-class team and we’re in this A league now because we deserve to be testing ourselves against the best.
“I think if you’re the tier below you get away with that at the end. You play the top teams, you don’t do the things you need to do and you get punished. It’s hard to take but it’s something we need to learn from.”
Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Neco Williams were among those rested and omitted from the squad altogether. The Netherlands, fresh from destroying Belgium in Brussels, made wholesale changes, with Virgil van Dijk absent after being granted leave by Van Gaal. This was the first meeting between these teams since Netherlands visited Cardiff in 2015, when Arjen Robben scored twice and Danny Blind, now Van Gaal’s assistant, was manager.
Van Gaal, reappointed by the Netherlands last August, is yet to lose in his third spell in charge and five minutes into the second half his side opened the scoring in clinical fashion. Jerdy Schouten, a debutant, located Koopmeiners on the edge of the 18-yard box and the Atalanta midfielder coolly drilled a diagonal shot, which brushed Davies’s fingers in the Wales goal, into the bottom corner. Van Gaal, legs crossed in the away dugout, scribbled on his notepad.
De Jong and Steven Bergwijn came on midway through the second half while Wales were forced into a change when the injured Joe Morrell was forced off. Bale arrived to a hero’s welcome but the real drama arrived in stoppage time.
Of his side’s ability to find their late winner, Van Gaal said: “I think we have a marvellous group. This is not the first time and it will not be the last time.”