BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgium booked its place at next year’s World Cup with a 3-1 win over Estonia in their qualifying group on Saturday, guaranteeing a third straight appearance at the tournament.
With just one match left to play in Group E, top-ranked Belgium remained unbeaten and has an unassailable five-point lead over second-place Wales.
Wales beat Belarus 5-1 in Cardiff with Gareth Bale making his 100th appearance for the hosts.
Despite the absence of several key players, including Romelu Lukaku, Belgian attacks kept coming at King Baudouin stadium and the Red Devils should have won by a bigger margin if not for their profligacy in front of goal.
Christian Benteke, who replaced Lukaku up front, put the hosts in front early and Yannick Carrasco made it 2-0 after the interval. Belgium briefly lost its focus in the last 20 minutes, allowing Estonia to come back in the match through a goal from substitute Erik Sorga before Thorgan Hazard restored a two-goal lead.
In Qatar, Belgium’s golden generation of players will aim for the major title it craves so much following repeated failures in recent years.
Led by the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Lukaku, Belgium made it to the semifinals at the 2018 World Cup and was eliminated in the quarterfinals by eventual winner Italy at the European Championship earlier this year.
Roberto Martinez’s players blew another chance to win a trophy last month when they lost to France in their Nations League semifinal.
“It was very important for us to be able to compete again in a big tournament and it was very good that we could qualify in front of our fans at home because we had a rough patch, after not performing as we hoped at the Nations League,” said Carrasco. “I’m happy we got to celebrate again with them.”
Wales is guaranteed a World Cup playoff spot through its Nations League results. One more point will be enough for Wales in its final qualifier against Belgium on Tuesday to secure second place in the group. The best six runners-up will be seeded in the draw and get a home semifinal.
The 12-team playoffs will decide who joins the 10 European qualifying group winners at the tournament. The playoff draw will include runners-up in the 10 groups plus two group winners from the UEFA Nations League.
In Brussels, Belgium created a first chance after five minutes when Benteke cut inside and fired a left-footed shot that took a deflection over the crossbar. Belgium took the lead six minutes later after Estonia goalkeeper Matvei Igonen failed to clear a low cross from Carrasco, releasing the ball into Benteke’s path. The Crystal Palace striker collected the ball and scored with a simple tap-in from close range.
Carrasco made it 2-0 in the 53rd minute with a shot from the edge of the box into the top corner.
While Belgium had 20 attempts at goal, the visitors were overwhelmed by their rivals’ speed and intensity. They rarely managed to progress outside their own half and scored against the run of the play in the 70th. But Belgium did not panic and Hazard capped Belgium’s win four minutes later from De Bruyne’s set-up.
In Cardiff, Bale returned from a hamstring tear to win his 100th cap and Aaron Ramsey scored twice. Neco Williams, Ben Davies and Connor Roberts were also on the scoresheet as Wales climbed three points above the Czech Republic in the group standings.
Bale was treated to a joyful reception by the Cardiff fans. But Bale — who is Wales’ all-time top scorer — could not add to his international tally of 36 goals and was replaced at halftime.
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