The European champion is out and went out in the most unexpected of ways. The strength of this Portugal group was supposed to be its capacity to resist, to hold opponents at arm’s length and force mistakes. Belgium has a reputation as a hugely talented group of players who perhaps lack the edge of champions on the international stage. Yet here it was on Sunday in Seville, Belgium absorbing the blows and, somehow, clinging on to win 1–0 in the Euro 2020 round of 16 to set up a mouth-watering quarterfinal against Italy.
But it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Where was the Belgium of the group stage, the side that had passed its way around Russia and—in the second half—Denmark, that had eventually overwhelmed Finland? It is certainly older now; perhaps it is wiser as well, able to control games—and, it must be said, ride its luck. In the end, Thorgan Hazard’s sensational, powerful and knuckling 42nd-minute strike was enough.
Neither side had been entirely convincing in the group stage. Belgium, although it won all three matches, two of them by clean sheet, often looked susceptible at the back, where the absence of Vincent Kompany is felt almost as sorely as the age of Toby Alderweireld, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen, who are a combined 101.
Portugal, meanwhile, had struggled to break Hungary down in its opening game and had then been torn apart by Germany’s width. That it qualified as a top-four third-place side, as it had in 2016, wasn't cause for worry, but leaking six goals in doing so surely was, given this is very much a team based on solidity. It also managed to score seven goals in the group, five of them from Ronaldo, despite only really playing well in the final few minutes against Hungary and for spells in the 2-2 draw with France.
A rejig of the midfield, switching from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 and bringing in Renato Sanches, João Palhinha and João Moutinho restored some of the solidity and perhaps brought a slight change of approach. This was not the game of Belgian possession and Portuguese counterattacks many had expected. Perhaps that made sense in terms of restricting Belgium, but it is not Portugal’s natural game, and the pace of its buildup was so slow that it rarely developed into anything even vaguely threatening. Its only real chance of the first half was a Ronaldo free kick, but they are rather better in the anticipation than the execution these days. He is 1-for-52 on free kicks at major tournaments (Euros and World Cups combined), 0-for-28 all-time at the Euros.
And when Portugal finally did press, it was punished for it. Romelu Lukaku, having largely made fruitless runs all night, gathered a clever clip over the top from Hazard. He held off Rúben Dias and, as play caught up with him, laid the ball off to Kevin De Bruyne. The pass was a little in front of him and possession was briefly lost, but Portugal was never able to reset so when the ball had broken to Hazard, charging up to join the attack, he had time to line up his shot on goal. He cut across the shot and that was enough slightly to wrong-foot Rui Patricio, who had just taken a slight hop to his right.
The pattern of the second half was established early: Portugal in possession and probing, Belgium in a defensive posture. It is not the type of performance that would naturally seem to suit either this Belgium side or manager Roberto Martinez, but it was perhaps slightly forced on them by the injury suffered by De Bruyne as Palhinha caught him from behind, forcing him off three minutes after the break.
There were scares, notably when Ronaldo, having pulled deep and right, cut infield and slipped a pass to Diogo Jota, but the Liverpool forward's shot was high and wide. Another Ronaldo free kick was belted into a Portuguese player he had positioned in front of the wall to block the sight of Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. A Dias header from a corner was powered straight at Courtois. A Raphaël Guerreiro snap-shot hit the post. João Felix drove a blast narrowly wide. André Silva was beaten to the spot by Courtois after Ronaldo's header to the back post had picked out the substitute forward.
But as the game became increasingly tetchy and fractious, as tackles flew in—including one archetypal post-whistle knock-down from the 38-year-old Pepe—and players from both sides sought to pressure the officials, Belgium held out. It was tense and thrilling, a little scrappy at times, and surely not 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 at the Euros again.
Belgium, however, marches on, with the focus firmly on how De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, who showed glimpses of his peak form but was forced off late with an apparent hamstring strain, recover before Friday's quarterfinal. The golden generation is creaking now, but could this, at last, be its time?
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