One of Wales’s greatest nights came against Belgium at Euro 2016 and they savoured another memorable moment against the same opposition as Brennan Johnson crowned a sumptuous move to slot in his first senior goal for his country to salvage their first Nations League point of the campaign.
Johnson, a late substitute, applied the finishing touch but it was move kickstarted by the again-impressive Neco Williams, who skedaddled forward from halfway with the ball in tow before feeding Aaron Ramsey on the edge of the D. From there Ramsey skidded on the turf to somehow keep the ball under his spell before pirouetting and locating Johnson, who calmly rolled in.
By the end, the home support were serenading Wales’s latest prodigious talent. After the delirium of qualifying for a first World Cup since 1958 last weekend, this time Wales had to wait an age to celebrate, with Johnson’s equaliser four minutes from time awarded following a lengthy, and questionable, VAR check. An assistant referee flagged for offside but the VAR overruled the decision to leave the Belgium manager, Roberto Martínez, furious at what he described as a “comical” decision by a “faulty system”.
“I expect an explanation from really high up,” Martínez said. “It is very important for Uefa, [it is] really important for Fifa, around a World Cup. The lines for the offside don’t work, that is the top and bottom of it. It is quite comical. We need software that says who is in an offside position, with a 3D system or whatever it is but the lines, please‚ we are in a multimillion pound business and the lines are comical. As a federation we need an explanation on how that decision was given and why we are using this sort of system.”
Belgium, who opened the scoring through Youri Tielemans, had to make do with a draw. For Johnson, his composed finish represented another milestone at the end of a glittering season. Last Sunday he arrived off the bench against Ukraine to help Wales to a first World Cup in 64 years, hitting a post with his first touch, the weekend before he had won promotion to the Premier League with Nottingham Forest at Wembley, a few weeks after being awarded the Championship’s young player of the season award.
Johnson arrived off the bench in place of Gareth Bale and saw a shot deflected wide within a couple of minutes of entering. Johnson stormed forward and cut inside Arthur Theate before getting his shot off. “There’s no defender out there in world football who would want to see Brennan come on for the last 10 or 15 minutes,” said the Wales manager, Robert Page. “There is a lot more to come from him. He is only going to get better and better.”
Bale returned to the starting lineup on the six-year anniversary of his free-kick against Slovakia in Wales’ Euro 2016 opener in Bordeaux, playing up front alongside the lively Daniel James as Page tweaked the formation from Wednesday’s defeat to the Netherlands. Wayne Hennessey, the hero in Wales’ playoff final victory over Ukraine, started in goal and Ethan Ampadu, who had an early goal disallowed for an offside against Joe Rodon in the buildup, lined up in midfield alongside Harry Wilson and Joe Allen. Ramsey, among those left out of the squad in midweek, arrived off the bench on 38 minutes to replace Allen, who injured his hamstring as he darted towards the ball to tee up Connor Roberts.
Ramsey was one of five players to feature who started Wales’s last victory against Belgium, when they were propelled to the semi-finals of the European Championship by an unforgettable goal by Hal Robson-Kanu, then a free agent. That day Robson-Kanu’s Cruyff turn saw him twirl clear of Marouane Fellaini and Thomas Meunier, who started for Belgium here, before nestling the ball into the net. There were glimpses of such quality in this contest, none more so than Ramsey’s magical touch late on. In the first half Tielemans released Yannick Carrasco with an exquisite pass but the Belgium forward stumbled and James slipped the ball through the legs of Dedryck Boyata to locate Bale.
Belgium had taken a deserved lead through the Arsenal target Tielemans, who coolly found the corner of Hennessey’s goal after neat interplay by Michy Batshuayi and Leandro Trossard on the edge of the box.
Martínez confirmed Kevin De Bruyne, who captained Belgium, Carrasco and Meunier would be spared the trip to Poland on Tuesday. For Page and Wales, a marathon season ends in Rotterdam against the Netherlands and they will arrive in good spirits after earning a fine draw, even if it was a little painful. “It took too long,” Page said of the VAR check. “I couldn’t take my eyes off the referee and it’s the worst feeling in the world. They are taking too long to make decisions on it.”