When you think of Belgium, attacking brilliance, clinical finishing and creative excellence probably come to mind.
Well, in their Euro 2020 round of 16 tie against Portugal, none of the above stood out all that much. Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard showed lovely moments here and there without ever threatening to dissect Portugal’s rigid shape, while Romelu Lukaku struggled to ever get a sight of goal.
In truth, leading up to the breakthrough, their patient approach could’ve easily been labelled as too passive and their lack of cutting edge in the final third was quite sloppy.
And yet, they won. A 1-0 victory in that titanic last 16 clash saw the Red Devils book their place in the quarter-finals. They weren’t dazzling, they weren’t exactly thrilling, and they weren’t sweepingly creative.
Roberto Martinez’s side came away with the result demonstrating they’re more than just a spectator’s team. They are perfectly balanced when they need to be, and are capable of grinding out a result to secure their passage through a tournament.
Previous disappointments at major tournaments have often seen Belgium’s possession of this trait called into question, but Sunday night’s result will put those doubts to bed.
After Thorgan Hazard struck a wonderful first-half goal, hitting a dipping and swerving shot into Rui Patricio’s bottom corner, the onus to attack was handed to Portugal. And, although they didn’t look threatening for large parts of the evening, an onslaught ensued in the latter stages.
All 11 Belgian players on the pitch had a role to play in those gut-wrenching moments, and they executed them perfectly.
Lukaku was an out ball up top, while the two behind him were tirelessly pressing Fernando Santos’ creators. In midfield, Youri Tielemans stood out, breaking up play brilliantly and managing four ball recoveries while also calmly keeping possession to alleviate the tension.
Hazard epitomised the role of the wing-backs, registering six ball recoveries while also surging upfield to relieve pressure and provide a thrust going forward. And the back three remained solid courtesy of Thomas Vermaelen’s colossal performance, in which he racked up 12 defensive interventions and he looked like the elite footballer up against Cristiano Ronaldo.
In the panicked and almost hysterical final minutes of the match, there seemed to be a perfect harmony across the Belgian players on the pitch. The balance of staying compact and closing every possible avenue to Portugal while also managing to provide threat on the counter with assurance on the ball was proof that Martinez has got a squad capable of glory, not just entertainment.
The golden generation’s 1-0 win over Portugal on Sunday night may not have set the world alight, but it was the perfect demonstration of durability, composure and a resilient winning mentality – and proof that they are firmly here to finally pick up some silverware at Euro 2020.