Are Belgium ever going to be genuine contenders or are they just a waste of good footballers? This was Wales’s night, and make no mistake they deserved a place in the last four, but Belgium’s inability to show any sort of consistency must be beyond infuriating for their management and supporters.
While the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Marc Wilmots’ side is well known, what was unexpected here, when the stage was set for a great leap forward, was Belgium showing both sides of their character in the same game.
They arrived at the Stade Pierre Mauroy with a swagger in their step, looking like they meant business, as befitting a team growing stronger as the tournament progresses. They began as if they had no intention of hanging around either. After a dozen minutes of crisp, purposeful football led to an early breakthrough it was already difficult to remember how they managed to lose their opening game. Then they switched off again, as if suddenly remembering they were supposed to be uncomfortable with the expectations that go with being regarded among the tournament favourites, and Welsh supporters fearful of a whipping after the opening few minutes suddenly realised they were making inroads against a side that now looked distinctly ordinary.
Wales were defending for dear life just minutes into the game as Romelu Lukaku set an attack in motion and Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard combined to create an opening that Yannick Carrasco should have accepted. De Bruyne and Hazard in particular are such neat, precise passers they lost no time in slicing through Wales’s three-man central defence, and just when their opponents were probably feeling relieved when the latter rolled the ball back to Radja Nainggolan in a position that looked unthreatening the Roma player unleashed a shot that arrowed into Wayne Hennessey’s top corner from 30 yards out.
Any hopes that Wales might have had that the absence of Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen would weaken the Belgian defence initially proved unfounded. Jordan Lukaku and Jason Denayer proved capable deputies on the left, and when the former was caught out of position midway through the first half, Thibaut Courtois came to his side’s rescue to deny Neil Taylor an equaliser. If Belgium thought they had done enough to win the game they were mistaken, however, and there was no excuse for the sort of complacency that Nainggolan showed in failing to stay with Ashley Williams when defending a corner. Once they were back in the game Wales were actually on top for the rest of the first half. Here was Belgium back to looking uncertain again, with Hazard disappearing from the game, Lukaku left isolated and De Bruyne reduced to taking hopeful and ultimately wasteful pot shots from distance in the manner of England against Iceland. For a team regarded as likely finalists Belgium do not defend set pieces particularly well, and though several overlaps were created down the right wing in the first half the eventual crosses all managed to elude the not exactly inconspicuous target of Romelu Lukaku.
So, which Belgium side would emerge for the second half? The one that started the match like greased lightning or the one that trooped off at the interval discussing what had gone wrong? It turned out to be the Belgium with Marouane Fellaini gangling about in midfield, on as a substitute for the ineffective Carrasco. That sort of gambit, long discredited at Manchester United, could be considered a little desperate for a team supposedly destined for the final. The initial signs were not great. De Bruyne was still shooting from outside the box without requiring the goalkeeper to make a save, and when Thomas Meunier finally managed to put a cross on Romelu Lukaku’s head the Everton striker sent it wide. A determined run from Hazard, cutting in from the left and drilling a low shot just past a post, was more like it, though within minutes it was rendered irrelevant by virtue of Hal Robson-Kanu giving Wales the lead.
This time the younger Lukaku’s poor positioning was punished. He was too far upfield when Gareth Bale played Aaron Ramsey into the space behind, and though there was still a lot to do when the ball arrived in the middle neither Meunier, who was on the spot but was beaten by the Welsh player’s adroit turn, nor Fellaini, who arrived too late as is his wont, could prevent Courtois being horribly exposed. Fellaini arrived too late for his next challenge too, clattering into Bale and picking up a booking that puts him out of the next match. At that point Belgium were still thinking there might be a next match. There might still have been, but Belgium’s best chance fell to Fellaini and he headed wide. Romelu Lukaku’s last act before being withdrawn was to implore the Belgium end to make more noise. Rather tellingly, the Belgium fans stayed silent, even before Sam Vokes set the opposite end singing.
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