The European champion has come out and came out in the most unexpected way. The strength of this group from Portugal was supposed to be their ability to resist, keep opponents at a distance, and force mistakes. Belgium has a reputation for being a group of highly talented players who perhaps lack the advantage of champions on the international stage. Yet here I was on Sunday in Seville, Belgium absorbing the blows and somehow holding on to win 1-0 in the knockout stages of Euro 2020 to set up a delicious quarter-final against Italy.
But it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Where was Belgium from the group stage, the team that had gone through Russia and, in the second half, Denmark, who had finally overtaken Finland? He is certainly older now; perhaps he is also wiser, able to control games and, it must be said, takes advantage of his luck. In the end, Thorgan Hazard’s sensational, powerful and forceful blow in the 42nd minute was enough.
Neither side had been entirely convincing in the group stage. Belgium, although they won all three games, two of them clean sheets, often seemed touchy behind, where the absence of Vincent Kompany is felt almost as painfully as the age of Toby Alderweireld, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen, who They are a combined 101.
Portugal, meanwhile, had struggled to bring down Hungary in their first game and then had been ripped apart by the breadth of Germany. That it ranked as a top four team in third place, as it did in 2016, was not a cause for concern, but losing six goals doing so surely was, given that this is a team built on strength. He also managed to score seven goals in the group, five of them from Ronaldo, even though he only played really well in the final minutes against Hungary and at times in the 2-2 draw with France.
A midfield rejig, going from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 and the addition of Renato Sanches, João Palhinha and João Moutinho restored some of the solidity and perhaps brought a slight shift in focus. This was not the Belgian possession game and many Portuguese counterattacks were waiting. Perhaps that made sense in terms of restricting Belgium, but it is not Portugal’s natural game, and the pace of its development was so slow that it rarely became even vaguely threatening. Their only real first-half chance was a free kick from Ronaldo, but these days they are quite a bit better at anticipation than execution. He has 1 of 52 in free throws in major tournaments (Euros and World Cups combined), 0 of 28 all-time in the Euro.
And when Portugal finally pushed, they were punished for it. Romelu Lukaku, having made fruitless runs all night, picked up a clever clip on top of Hazard. He stopped Rúben Dias and, when the game caught up with him, left the ball to Kevin De Bruyne. The pass was slightly ahead of him and possession was briefly lost, but Portugal was never able to restart, so when the ball had broken for Hazard, charging to join the attack, he had time to line up his shot on goal. He cut the shot and that was enough to miss Rui Patricio, who had just made a small jump to his right.
The pattern of the second half was set early: Portugal in possession and probing, Belgium in a defensive stance. It is not the kind of performance that would naturally seem to suit this Belgian team or coach Roberto Martínez, but perhaps it was a bit forced by the injury suffered by De Bruyne when Palhinha caught him from behind and forced him to retire three minutes later. . Rest.
There were shocks, especially when Ronaldo, having thrown deep and right, cut the frame and slipped a pass to Diogo Jota, but the Liverpool forward’s shot was high and wide. Another free kick from Ronaldo was sent to a Portuguese player who had positioned himself against the wall to block the view of Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. A header from Dias from a corner was propelled directly into Courtois. A snapshot of Raphaël Guerreiro hit the post. João Felix fired a very narrow shot. André Silva was beaten to the point by Courtois after a header from Ronaldo to the back post had chosen the substitute striker.
But as the game became increasingly irritable and contentious, when tackles appeared, including an archetypal post-whistle knockdown from 38-year-old Pepe, and players on both sides sought to pressure umpires, Belgium held out. It was tense and exciting, a bit tricky at times, and it surely wasn’t what either coach had planned. Ronaldo was tireless but, for once, unable to shape the game to his will. At 36, he may never play in the Euro again.
Belgium, however, move forward, with a firm focus on how De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, who showed flashes of their best form but were forced to retire late with an apparent hamstring strain, recover before the quarters. end of Friday. The golden generation is crunching now, but could this finally be their moment?
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.