A manager under pressure and a group of talented men that stood accused of not being a team, a side that where fault lines appeared to be opening up after they were defeated by Italy, Belgium responded with an emphatic 3-0 victory that leaves them well placed to progress from Group E and brings optimism for the tournament that lies ahead.
Two goals from Romelu Lukaku and another from Axel Witsel brought celebrations that spoke of relief and vindication as well as joy, Marc Wilmots placing himself at the heart of them. After his second goal, Lukaku cupped his ear as if to say: “What now?” Now, Belgium begin.
For Ireland, this is not the end, but it will not be easy to avoid an early departure from France. There is still a small chance that a draw may be sufficient but they will almost certainly have to win their final group game against Italy if they are to progress. The good news for them is that, with qualification secured, Antonio Conte admitted that he will make changes. And, while few have talked about it publicly, still less admitted the temptation, it may suit Italy to finish second not first. The team that tops this group will get Spain or Croatia; the team that finishes second will get Portugal, Austria, Hungary or Iceland.
Martin O’Neill would be entitled to highlight the resources available to him, a reality few deny. For his opposite number this was difference, hence the significance of this result; this was not just about the points won but the points made.
Defeated by Italy in their opening game, Wilmots was a manager under pressure from within as well as without. After the defeat to Italy, Thibault Courtois said that Belgium had been “outclassed on all fronts, technically, tactically and organisationally”. Although he tentatively suggested that “perhaps” his comments had been misinterpreted at the pre-match press conference, he pretty much had to say that while he was sitting next to the coach and the virtually unanimous assumption was that he had only said what others thought. The manager meanwhile had blamed the players, highlighting missed opportunities from Romelu Lukaku and poor defending on the opening goal.
Rarely do players, or managers, welcome public analyses. Wilmots admitted that the players’ thoughts were expressed in a meeting with the squad and although he insisted that he is “in charge”, “the man who makes the decisions”, he did appear to have listened at least. He has heard much from the media and fans too, seen fingers pointing his way, accusing him of being the man unable to get enough from a golden generation.
There was a more natural look to this starting line-up, a threatening look too, with Kevin De Bruyne as a no. 10, not shunted out to the wing, and Yannick Carrasco included on the right. They were joined by Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku; there is no want for talent here, but could they be a team? Lukaku had been criticised for his performance in the opening game but his inclusion would be vindicated here.
Behind them, Radja Nainggolan was replaced by Mousa Dembele. This appeared less about deployment, more about discipline: Nainggolan had appeared to make a gesture aimed at Wilmots in the opening game against Italy. As for Ireland, without Jon Walters, Martin O’Neil pushed Robbie Brady into midfield. That effectively left them with one way out: to Shane Long. Quick, strong, willing … and usually some way from his team-mates.
Belgium dominated possession, having 64% of the ball in the first half, and there appeared to be desire to take control and make the most of every minute which was reflected in the Belgian fans initially whistling every stoppage, however short. Which is not to say it yielded a huge number of opportunities, at least to start with. The half time shot count read 9-2 to Belgium, but only two on target. The best opportunities were Eden Hazard’s skied shot from twelve yards and a Toby Alderweireld header cleared off the line by Wes Hoolahan.
The first of those had come from a lovely De Bruyne cross which John O’Shea had done well to reach ahead of Lukaku inside the six yard box, the ball bouncing up for Hazard twelve yards out; the second came from a De Bruyne corner. Most of what Belgium did came from De Bruyne, in fact, although thee would ultimately be decisive roles played by Eden Hazard and Thomas Meunier too.
De Bruyne, Yannick Carrasco and Hazard combined for a goal that was rightly ruled out for offside, the Chelsea player following up from Darren Randolph’s fine save. His also whipped free kick just evaded the men running in and the far post, while another delivery ended with Jan Vertonghen hooking wide, and his weak shot was a disappointing end to a break sparked by Lukaku’s sharp touch. Weaker still was Thomas Meunier’s effort at the near post a minute later. Both would make amends.
Ireland’s opportunities were few on an afternoon when the difference felt too great. Wes Hoolahan and Jeff Hendrick both unable to make the most of two brief moments when space opened up and there was a glimpse of a chance. At the start of the second half, there was appeal for a penalty when Alderweireld, attempting to reach an in swinging cross, leapt high with his foot up and very near Long’s head, a karate kick that may have made contact. Maybe even a double karate kick, in fact: Thomas Vermaelen was heading his way from the other side, his foot also high.
But if that was a chance, it was also the beginning of the end. The ball ran free and Belgium broke immediately, the whistles from the Irish fans still ringing as Lukaku released De Bruyne. Dashing up the right, the Manchester City player saw Lukaku sprinting to join him, a run from the half way line to the eighteen yard line, and rolled the ball across to him to control, open up his body and bend the ball into the bottom corner.
Running to the bench to celebrate, Wilmots came to greet Lukaku with a huge bear hug, a show of strength and unity that perhaps appeared a touch undermined when the striker broke free and embraced the men standing behind his manager. The relief for Wilmots must have been genuine, though, and probably his own sense of vindication. And he was up celebrating again just after the hour, when Axel Witsel headed in Meunier’s cross to make it 2-0.
And then it was three, a move that began with Meunier’s neat tackled-turned-dragback near the by line and little clipped pass up the right. That appeared to be that, the ball seemed to be drifting and Hazard seemed happy enough to let it, not chasing with any great intent. But then he saw Ciaran Clark screeching across, hurtling towards the ball, no chance to apply the breaks and determined to launch himself at it. Hazard the grasped opportunity in his opponent’s momentum and suddenly accelerated, getting there first and clipping the ball past Clark, who slid by like a cartoon character off a cliff, as the Belgian ran clear to lay it across for Lukaku to supply the finish.
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