Thorgan Hazard thunderbolt sees Belgium edge out Portugal
The Red Devils dumped the defending European champions out with an attritional 1-0 victory, but may have lost De Bruyne and Eden Hazard to injury
On a sultry night in Seville, the world’s no. 1 ranked team Belgium narrowly beat the reigning European champions Portugal to set up a mouthwatering quarter-final clash with Italy. Thorgan Hazard’s screamer at the end of the first half was a rare moment of quality in a cagey affair, and Belgium rode out waves of Portugal attacks to hold on to their slender lead. But the withdrawals of Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard due to injury left manager Roberto Martinez with much to ponder.
After using several fringe players in their last group game against Finland, Martinez picked his strongest starting lineup, with a talking point being the starting of both Hazard brothers together for the first time in the tournament. Portugal, on the other hand, made only two changes from their draw against France, with Fernando Santos installing Diogo Dalot and João Palhinha in place of Nelson Semedo and Danilo Pereira. Bruno Fernandes was again omitted.
The first chance of the game fell to Diogo Jota. In the 6th minute, Renato Sanches produced a driving run down the middle and passed off to Jota, only for the Liverpool forward to shoot well wide of the far post. Cristiano Ronaldo then struck a trademark swerving freekick in the 25th minute but was denied by a smart save from Thibaut Courtois in the Belgian goal.
Apart from these chances, however, the first half was turning out to be a dreary watch, both sides trying not to lose more than they were trying to win. Only Sanches showed some flickers of attacking intent, with his strength, smooth touches and forceful runs. Belgium, for all their attacking riches, were well shackled by the Portuguese defence.
Then in the 42nd minute, out of nowhere, they broke free. The goal was a moment of outstanding clarity and brilliant execution from Hazard, but not the Hazard everyone expected it to be. Thorgan, playing as a left wing-back, received the ball on the left as a Belgian attack petered out, cut inside with two quick touches, and crashed a swerving, dipping missile of a shot from 25 yards out, past Rui Patricio in goal. There were question marks over the keeper’s positioning, as the ball was nowhere near the corner, but it was a thrilling goal nonetheless.
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Just before the break, De Bruyne injured his knee and ankle after a dangerous tackle by Palhinha as the Manchester City man looked to counter. He played on, and even appeared after the interval, but struggled to run and was swiftly replaced by Dries Mertens.
De Bruyne’s injury robbed Belgium of their forward thrust in midfield. Their only attacking outlet became Eden Hazard, who produced some good play but was easily dealt with. Romelu Lukaku, who had looked forlorn up front, was even more isolated and the Red Devils were forced to sit back.
This allowed Portugal to bring out their best football of the tournament in the second half. They steadily grew into the game, preparing for their onslaught in the last 10 minutes. Santos brought on Bruno Fernandes and Joao Felix to inject more creativity into his side. The balance tilted in Portugal’s favour, with Belgium barely getting enough possession to ease the pressure.
Ronaldo was everywhere, at times driving at the defence and creating chances, but he was let down by poor finishing from Jota and Felix. At other times, his teammates flung long balls in for him to cash in on his unparalleled heading ability, but they rarely found their target. The Belgian defence, containing the experienced trio of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen, held firm.
As the tension grew, tempers began to fray and the number of sly, niggly challenges increased. Lukaku went down after an accidental boot to the head from the erratic Palhinha, but Thorgan Hazard, who seemed to not hear the referee’s whistle, continued playing. Pepe put an end to that with a crunching tackle. Several Belgians ran over towards Pepe but referee Felix Brych defused the situation and booked the Portuguese defender.
As the clock wound down, Portugal threw bodies forward in desperation. From a corner, Ruben Dias spurned a golden opportunity with a free header that he thumped directly at Courtois. Portugal were inches away from an equaliser immediately afterwards, when Felix’s cross was only half cleared and Raphael Guerreiro’s crisp half-volley beat Courtois but rebounded off the post. Courtois then saved bravely at the feet of Andre Silva as the forward tried to turn in a Ronaldo cross.
Eden Hazard pulled up with a tight hamstring and was replaced by Yannick Carrasco. The substitute then wasted two chances on the counter to put the game to bed, running into dead ends when he might have shot or passed to teammates. There was time for one final scare for Belgium, Felix dragging a shot just wide after a clever one-two with Ronaldo, before the final whistle blew. The Belgian players celebrated ecstatically, while Ronaldo was left beating the pitch in frustration.
The Red Devils had turned in a performance of grit and experience rather than outstanding quality, but that will not matter to them at all. Their ‘Golden Generation’ will continue to fight for their first international trophy, with a heavyweight clash against Italy coming up in the quarterfinals. The likely absence of Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard will be a severe blow, but they will hope that their teammates can plug the gaps and carry on. Knock out Italy, and they will believe that their time has come.
Portugal’s time is done and they will exit the tournament feeling disappointed after dominating this match. They had 23 shots to Belgium’s 6, but they never really worked Courtois hard, as shown by the fact that only 4 of their 23 shots were on target. They simply couldn’t find a way through.
Ronaldo cut a frustrated figure even as he hugged Lukaku after the match. The Portuguese captain had become the outright top scorer in the history of the European Championship with his 5 goals in the group stage. He also equalled Ali Daei’s international goalscoring record, which he will definitely overhaul soon. But after the high of Euro 2016, there was now a sense of regret, of an opportunity missed, at the end of what is probably his last ever European Championship match.