Wednesday, January 19

Romelu Lukaku seals the victory of Belgium to leave Finland on the brink | Euro 2020

Glory comes in many ways, some of them very strange, as does disappointment. Finland coach Markku Kanerva described it as the most important match in his country’s history and for 75 minutes it looked like they were on their way to knockouts. It hadn’t exactly been a desperate challenge, there was very little at stake for Belgium for that, but still progress in the group in their first tournament would have been a remarkable achievement.

And then came a Thomas Vermaelen header that hit the crossbar, hitting the unfortunate Lukas Hradecky and bouncing over the line. Suddenly, Finland was left waiting for an unlikely combination of results in other groups to carry them out.

Finland’s goal from the start was to hold on and hold on and try to score a point that, in the worst case scenario, would have secured a place in the round of 16 as one of the best third-finishers. Since the only way Belgium could lose first place was to lose this game, there was an air of futility from the start. There was not a great deal of resistance or perseverance to be done, certainly nothing to unsettle a nation that prides itself on its ‘sisu’, its spirit of resistance. Anyone’s only real motivation, it was felt, was from Romelu Lukaku as he searched for the Golden Boot.

This is not how big tournaments should be, an indictment of the format. Apart from the fact that it takes 71% of the games to eliminate 33% of the teams, there is a basic lack of sporting integrity: Finland knew that the two third-place teams in the groups that had been completed were Ukraine with three points and Switzerland with four points and a goal difference of minus one; that a draw, taking them to four points and a level of goal difference would make them pass.

It’s not the fault of Finland, or Scotland, Croatia, Portugal or whoever, but the teams in the groups that played later have a clear advantage. The preference for a one-on-one difference rather than a goal to separate teams that are tied on points only further diminishes the sense of danger.

Lucas Hradecky is unable to prevent the ball from crossing the line after hitting the crossbar and bouncing off it
Lucas Hradecky can’t keep the ball from crossing the line after hitting the bar and bouncing off it. Photograph: Anton Vaganov / AFP / Getty Images

And then there’s the point where Finland benefited from playing Belgium last. With six points, Belgium knew it was over and that’s why they made eight changes from the team coming from behind to beat Denmark on Thursday.

Maybe that’s not so dramatic given that Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Axel Witsel came off the bench last week and apparently started with the intention of putting minutes into their legs as they recover from injury.

Hazard was quite open about his lack of sharpness. “I’m going to play a little more each time until I hit that 100% mark,” he had said Monday. “We’ll see how long I can play.” Even in a pedestrian game, he looked well below his best.

A rejig at the rear, where Belgium seemed so insecure against Denmark, saw Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen rest. Jason Denayer kept his place in the heart of the defense despite his goal-making mistake in Copenhagen, with Dedryck Boyata on his left and Vermaelen on his right.

However, it would take a better and more mobile team than Finland to provide some kind of assessment of whether this permutation is less rickety than the previous one.

Every now and then someone, usually De Bruyne or Lukaku, and on one occasion Finland forgot himself and tried something proactive, but most of the first half was played by walking, and quite often standing, in stride.

As Finland got tired it became a little less stagnant point and Hradecky, the Finnish sports personality of the year, made good low saves from Jérémy Doku and Witsel.

Lukaku was thwarted by the most marginal of VAR offside after catching a pass from De Bruyne. But Belgium were not going to refuse forever and after Hradecky’s own goal, Lukaku struck again in his third of the tournament.

Finland, who were 15 minutes away from finishing second and preparing for a round of 16 tie against Wales, briefly fell at the end of the group. Denmark’s flurry of goals against Russia returned them to third place, but three points and a difference of minus two goals are unlikely to help them pass.

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