On a night when the odds were always going to be stacked strongly in Belgium's favour, a moment of madness from James Collins left Wales with an impossible task as their World Cup qualifying campaign began with a brave but depressingly familiar defeat. The West Ham United central defender could have no complaints after he received a straight red card for a dangerous lunge on Guillaume Gillet only 26 minutes into a match that Belgium won with something to spare.

Vincent Kompany scored Belgium's first, just before the interval, and Jan Vertonghen added a second seven minutes from time to extinguish any faint hopes Wales had of salvaging a point. Chris Coleman's side refused to surrender and played with spirit and courage at times, epitomised by the indefatigable Gareth Bale, but what felt like a mismatch when the team-sheets were handed out beforehand became a non-contest from the moment Collins had a rush of blood to the head.

Without Craig Bellamy, Neil Taylor and Joe Allen, who dropped out on the eve of the game with a virus, and up against a star-studded Belgium team that cost £140m in transfer fees, Wales now had a numerical disadvantage to deal with as well. It was only going to end one way and although Bale came close to equalising, when he drew a fine save from Thibaut Courtois with a free-kick that was arrowing towards the top corner until the Belgium goalkeeper got a touch, the visitors seemed to be playing within themselves in the second half.

Coleman argued that Collins should not have been sent off and robustly defended his player, but the television replays were damning. Although Gillet also had his studs raised as he sought to retain possession in the centre of the pitch as Belgium broke forward on a counterattack, the right-back clearly got to the ball first. Collins caught Gillet with his studs after the ball had gone and Stefan Johannesson, the Swedish referee, who was right on the spot, had no option but to send him off. So much for Fifa Fair Play day.

"I didn't think it was [a sending off]," Coleman said. "Maybe I'm biased. I think the referee sent him off because he went on the reaction of the player who was on the floor and who got up, incidentally, and finished the 90 minutes. Correct me if I'm wrong, football is a contact sport. Even if he was a little bit late he wasn't malicious. I've been in football long enough; I know what a leg-breaking tackle is and that wasn't nothing like it. So, no, it's not a red card in my book."

It felt like an unnecessary challenge in so many respects, not least because there was no immediate danger to the Wales goal. Coleman disagreed. "They were counterattacking us, so we can't just let players run past us," he said.

"He's a defender and I've been there myself — sometimes you can't help yourself; you see the ball and you want togo and win it. Whether or not the referee took that into consideration and he thought James was trying to break the play up … but I can't see him being sent off for a dangerous tackle.

"I'm not going to punish James. We can't let teams like Belgium come here and stand off them. We've got to get close and we've got to make contact with them. That's not a red card. Maybe a yellow and a warning. But not a red card."

Up until that point Wales had restricted Belgium to few meaningful efforts on goal and they had also caused their opponents the odd problem at the other end. Bale, who worked tirelessly to try to make things happen, skipped past Dries Mertens and got to the byline but his stabbed cross was over-hit and sailed beyond the red shirts dashing into the Belgium penalty area.

That was a rare Wales attack and it always felt like a matter of time before Belgium would strike at the other end. When the goal came it arrived from a set-piece, the lively Mertens delivering a corner that Kompany, outjumping Darcy Blake, powerfully headed home at the near post.

Content to keep the ball in the second half, Belgium eventually inflicted a second blow when Vertonghen's sweetly struck shot, after Eden Hazard had teed the ball up for him from a free-kick, flashed beyond Boaz Myhill.

Wales have now lost all four games since Coleman took over (if the Gary Speed memorial match against Costa Rica is included), and failed to score in the process, but the manager refuses to be downbeat.

"With our strongest XI playing at their best, this is a tough game against Belgium. If you take half a dozen players away from that and then you are down to 10 men, you've got a mountain to climb. But I can't complain about the players tonight," said Coleman, who will know in the next 48 hours whether Allen has a chance of featuring against Serbia on Tuesday. "We have got to show the same attitude in Serbia as we did today because if we do that we'll pick points up. I'm certain of that."