What the world is waiting for
A new qualifying campaign always means fresh hope. This is, however, particularly the case for Belgium as World Cup 2014 slowly comes into view. With a squad so rich in talent and largely in its twenties, it isn't just at home that there is anticipation that something could be about to happen. Planet football expects.
Belgium's move into the spotlight has only been accentuated by their growing Premier League connection. Seven of the starting line-up fielded against Wales for the qualifying opener at Cardiff City Stadium ply their trade in England and in addition, on-loan Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Thibault Courtois remains registered to Chelsea. A bright second-half cameo here by Kevin de Bruyne, at Werder Bremen for the season also on loan from the Stamford Bridge club, underlined that this relationship promises to grow in the future.
The signs were promising in last month's good win over the Netherlands in Brussels, though any praise has to be tempered by the knowledge that the Rode Duivels (Red Devils) were facing a side licking its wounds from Euro 2012 and tactically morphing under Louis van Gaal.
This victory may have been less glamorous, but coach Marc Wilmots will undoubtedly find it more satisfying. The man who was spent his own international playing career as part of the last Belgium teams to make an impact on a global level has been entrusted with the responsibility of moulding substance from the current hope.
Belgium's success-starved fans are already enjoying it, anyway. Every dribble by Axel Witsel or Moussa Dembele and every smooth passing move was met by joyous cheers from a sizeable and noisy travelling contingent. It feels good to be worth watching again. One could not accuse the upbeat visitors of being self-absorbed, however, and there was local gratitude in the stands and over the public address for their display of a banner painted with the message "Respect Gary Speed" before kick-off.
On the pitch, Belgium certainly showed signs of the style they'd displayed off it. There is a natural fluidity in this team, belying old talk of dressing room division - even in defence. The deployment of Jan Vertonghen at left-back is not only indicative of the quality at Belgium's disposal, but a question of balance, with both the Spurs man and his north London neighbour Thomas Vermaelen rather more intrepid than your average defender.
What may appear shoe-horning in players in another context is simply versatility in this team. After James Collins' red card midway through the first half, the individual qualities of Wilmots' players allowed Belgium to comfortably commute to a loose back three, with Gillet and Vermaelen moving further forward in turn in an attempt to exploit the extra space.
The down side of that shape is having two defenders on the same side of defence who get drawn to the ball easily. When David Edwards snuck onto Steve Morison's flick-on to smash into the side netting of Courtois' near post early, it was a reminder of potential vulnerability.
They are not without protection, though, and Witsel's growth into a highly accomplished deep-lying midfielder in his year at Benfica is also a huge boon to Wilmots. There is occasionally the feeling that the giant midfielder is playing a little within himself further back, but it serves him well. His size alone makes him a formidable defensive shield - it was easy to lose count of the number of times Wales skipper Aaron Ramsey simply ran into him - and his silky touch makes him the ideal starting point for a new move once he has the ball. Zenit St Petersburg's new signing is quickly becoming his national side's most vital player.
Physical prowess seemed to bother Wilmots less in an attacking sense, as he declined to opt for the bulky central striker that many would against a British team. Instead, he put his faith in the more slight and rapid Kevin Mirallas of Everton, with myriad possibilities offered by the intelligence and movement of Eden Hazard, Dembele and PSV's impressive Dries Mertens behind him.
Hazard's is an unusual international career, still in its infancy 30 appearances in. It took him until his 20th match for Belgium to score his first international goal. He only flickered intermittently here, but he looks much happier than he did under Wilmots' predecessor Georges Leekens, with whom he had a difficult relationship.
Now, the Chelsea man is at least sure of his role, starting wide and drifting into the fabled number 10 role, as with his club. Crucially, Hazard also has players on his wavelength around him, with Mertens passing to him with his back in the closing minutes, a party trick straight out of the Cristiano Ronaldo manual
One minute towards the end of the first half perhaps best defined the current conflict between the two halves of this team's personality that sometimes surfaces. There's a fine line between youthful insouciance and an unbecoming casualness, and Courtois almost crossed it when his leisurely clearance was deflected back past him by Gareth Bale -fortunately for the goalkeeper, Wales' leading light was whistled for handball. Vincent Kompany's near-post header from Mertens' corner to open the scoring in the very next action was a timely reminder that getting the basics right pays off.
That defence would simply not be overshadowed, with Jan Vertonghen's beautiful hit for the second goal and Thomas Vermaelen nearly making it an unorthodox triple when he smashed over the top in the game's dying embers.
The goalscorers were a tribute to Belgium's sensibility, having the common sense to slow the pace of the game down when required, using possession as a containing as well as an aggressive tactic. Now where have we heard that before?
If Tuesday's match against Croatia promises more of a feast for the fan, this win over a dogged Wales showed that Belgium are now a serious team. The flair is all well and good, but being capable of sensibly grinding out a win is equally an attribute that will ultimately serve them well in future.