For years, Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ has promised much but never quite lived up to its potential – in arguably their last opportunity for success, they are primed to give it all they have.
The one area of Roberto Martinez’s team that would cause most supporters concern would be their aging backline, but in the face of sheer desperation and an attack brimming with quality, they stood firm in Seville to see off Cristiano Ronaldo and defending European champions Portugal 1-0 on Sunday.
It was a performance that brought further credence to the growing idea that pragmatism rules on the international stage, with Belgium making the most of a wonderstrike and then offering little threat themselves at the other end. A gauntlet was laid down to Portugal and, despite boasting a squad far superior to the one they possessed five years ago, Fernando Santos was seemingly unable to harness that greater collective talent.
That’s not to say Portugal have been great entertainers since winning Euro 2016. No, in fact pragmatism and even dull football have almost been a staple under Santos, and this was very much the case during the opening 45 minutes in Seville, with Belgium’s difficulty in breaking down a typically rigid defence notable.
Though Romelu Lukaku’s efforts at least kept the Portugal backline busy. The occasion was perhaps understandably billed as Lukaku v Cristiano Ronaldo, though it was hardly a shootout between the pair as some might’ve hoped. Instead, they were forced to graft in what was something of a slog, and that suited Lukaku a little more than it did record-chasing Ronaldo.
The Inter star was first a nuisance in the 10th minute as he brilliantly used his frame to block Ruben Dias and tee up Eden Hazard on the edge of the box, though his subsequent shot was sliced horribly high. Later, in a move that highlighted his flexibility as much as his raw power, Lukaku surged through the middle as he led a break, impressively holding off Joao Palhinha, who desperately tried to foul him.
Fortunately for Portugal, Lukaku’s eventual pass was cut out and referee Felix Brych bizarrely opted against bringing the play back when Belgium failed to take full advantage. But soon after, Lukaku’s somewhat under-appreciated role took centre-stage once more, as he again bullied Dias on the edge of Portugal’s box to sustain an attack, and just a few seconds later it was 1-0.
Thorgan Hazard, for much of his career often seen simply as “Eden’s brother”, took the game by the scruff of the neck, as he blasted past Rui Patricio from 25 yards. That put him ahead of Eden for total Euros goals, his two coming in just three appearances. The older brother has one in nine games.
It was a moment of beauty somewhat out of keeping from the rest of a first half in which the majority of the highlights revolved around displays of physicality. The goal arriving so close to half-time at least allowed Portugal a chance to regroup and potentially alter their system to be more aggressive in attack, which, in fairness, they were as Santos’ men managed 15 shots compared to eight in the first period.
Portugal were on the front foot for most of the second half, their first proper chance coming shortly after a couple of attack-minded substitutions – Ronaldo did well on the right, drifting in and finding Diogo Jota in the box, only for him to blaze over.
The Selecao really upped the ante in the final 15 minutes, purely out of desperation. Dias saw a goal-bound headed pushed away by Thibaut Courtois, before Raphael Guerreiro linked up with Ronaldo and saw a right-footed effort come back off the post.
At the other end Lukaku continued to be a vital outlet for Belgium. While chances were difficult to come by, his lung-busting runs relieved the pressure on several occasions, buying the Red Devils a little extra time. But for all of Portugal’s incessant pressure, keeping alive their dream of retaining the crown wasn’t to be.
It wasn’t a wasted couple of weeks for Ronaldo at least, the all-time great taking several more records. He leaves Euro 2020 as the top-scorer in European Championship history with 14 goals and the top-scoring European player at major international tournaments with 21. But the last one, the biggest record of them all is out of reach for the time being, with Ronaldo left tied on 109 international goals with Ali Daei.
While Lukaku still has some way to go to matching the exploits of his Serie A rival, Rom v Ron went the Belgian’s way, and if he continues to produce similarly selfless displays over the next couple of weeks, he could well inspire the ‘golden generation’ to their defining achievement.