Belgium are European Championship quarter finalists following a narrow 1-0 win over Portugal and will face Italy in Munich on Friday.
This was the long-awaited round of 16 tie. The number one ranked team in the world up against the current holders, with the winner facing perhaps the best performing team in the tournament so far in Italy creating the prospect for a real spectacle. It didn’t disappoint.
Portugal looked to dominate during the early stages, seeing plenty of the ball and doubling Belgium’s shot tally in the first half. Belgium played more on the counter, utilising the weaknesses in dealing with wing-backs shown in A Seleção’s heavy defeat to Germany in the group stage.
Roberto Martinez’s 3-4-2-1 set-up made life difficult for Portugal, with the energy and bite of Youri Tielemans and Axel Witsel in midfield proving to be a fantastic contest with Renato Sanches, Joao Palhinha and Joao Moutinho. Sanches in particular ran the show, keeping things ticking over throughout and being involved in two very good chances, breaking the press twice with great strength and drive in the centre of the pitch and both times finding Diogo Jota who failed to test Thibaut Courtois in goal.
It was a very patient opening half an hour, with Cristiano Ronaldo going closest with a free-kick from 30 yards. This soon came back to bite them, with Belgium taking one of their few chances of the match just before halftime when wing backs Thomas Meunier and Thorgan Hazard combined to find the latter in space 25 yards from goal. The 28-year old got the ball under control before hitting a rocket into the far corner to open the scoring against the run of play. Rui Patricio will be disappointed, but nothing can be taken away from the sheer power and whip Hazard got on the ball to score an absolute cracker.
Opportunities remained few and far in the second half, with plenty of half chances but nothing clear cut. This included substitute Bruno Fernandes trying his luck from distance on the hour mark but failing to test Courtois. This became a theme throughout the second half, with Belgium’s cautious but effective approach forcing them into many shots from range.
Belgium countered well as Portugal pushed for an equaliser but wasted a number of good opportunities while the latter continued to dominate possession. 15 shots to Belgium’s two summed it up with Ruben Dias, Raphael Guerreiro, Andre Silva and Joao Felix all coming close late on. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t to be. The term attack is the best form of defence was evident towards the end especially.
Romelu Lukaku played a pivotal role in Roberto Martinez’s side relieving pressure with his excellent hold-up play and was a menace throughout despite not scoring. Belgium’s back three stayed solid and resilient throughout and managed to prevent Ronaldo from achieving the all-time men’s international goalscoring record, keeping a deep defensive line and clearing everything that came their way. It was really the perfect performance from Belgium.
Can Belgium go all the way?
Italy are up next for Belgium and are perhaps the favourites to go on to win the whole tournament. With the exception of a disappointing performance in the round of 16 against Austria in which a fantastic defensive display from the latter forced the Azzurri to extra time, Roberto Mancini’s side have been the most consistently excellent team in the group stage, showing more star quality than the likes of France, England, Germany and Portugal.
The FIFA rankings don’t lie in terms of Belgium’s individual quality and will be sure to give Italy their most difficult test so far. Beat perhaps the best-coached nation in the tournament, and there will be little doubt over whether Die Roten Teufel can take advantage of their golden generation and bring home glory.
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