Belgium faced and passed the Cristiano Ronaldo test as they defeated Portugal in the last-16 of the Euro 2020 championships, but injuries will leave them worried.
Ahead of the game between the two sides much of the focus was on their respective star strikers. Romelu Lukaku for Belgium, Ronaldo for Portugal. The Juventus striker remains one of the best forwards in the world, and since his move to Italy, the Inter Milan man has added a direct effectiveness to his game not just in front of goal, but with his teammates alongside him.
Lukaku was more impressive on Sunday night, at the heart of a few dangerous counterattacks. But really, this was not a golden game for the pair. The danger came from elsewhere. Portugal, in truth, rarely threatened, and Thibaut Courtois could be calm for most of the game. Thorgan Hazard was ultimately the difference in Seville. The fact it was Eden Hazard’s younger brother who came through for Roberto Martinez’s side should provide both encouragement and a cause for concern.
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The 28-year-old younger sibling of the eldest Hazard has had a perfectly decent career of his own, but he has never been regarded as the equal of the Real Madrid forward. His strike was well hit, though Rui Patricio might rue the error he made with his footwork as the ball initially came towards him.
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Nevertheless, his intervention was decisive at a time when there was precious little inspiration on the pitch, however frenetic and dramatic events became towards the end of the second half. Belgium should bring this experience into the quarter-finals against Italy, who may be able to exact more pressure in the later stages of the match with the resilience they have shown in their own games.
Belgium can be pleased that despite the flurry of fouls, anger and yellow cards, they were able to hold firm against a team of Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva, Joao Felix, Bruno Fernandes and others. There was concern their backline of thirty-somethings would start to creak and flounder under pressure, but instead they were relatively calmed. Their experience rather than their age was at the forefront of their performance, and meant that a desperate but uninspired frontline for Portugal was calmly dealt with.
However, there are concerns on the horizon for Martinez and his players. Kevin De Bruyne went off injured with an ankle injury, and while it is entirely possible that he will be back for the quarter-finals, the expression on his face betrayed worry that things are more serious. He did not enjoy an easy season with Manchester City as he was again affected by injuries which threaten to derail his career as he approaches his thirties. While it appears that Pep Guardiola has the contacts to get him back in action whenever injury strikes for now, he will not be able to hold back the natural decay that occurs with players approaching the end of their careers. Nevertheless, Belgium may now have to prepare for Friday’s game against Italy without the certain inclusion of perhaps the best player still in the tournament.
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Things are made more complicated by Hazard Sr. It did not appear to be a full, severe hamstring pull, but he immediately decided to come off towards the end of the game when something in his muscle gave him discomfort. It was a sensible move, but it means that there is also a chance that Belgium will have to turn to the far more prosaic Yannick Carrasco. Hazard has not been anything like the player Chelsea let go to Spain, but he definitely appears to be enjoying the pressure-lite ambience of life away from the Bernabeu.
The win over Portugal will give Martinez and his players confidence. Italy are not especially better than the players they have already faced, and beaten. They have shown that their defence is not a liability, but is a perfectly capable backline that should be able to handle the challenges most teams can present. Lukaku continues to improve after his time in Italy, and there are no huge weaknesses across the team. But it can't be ignored that with only a few days to prepare for a new team, style and challenge, they will be doing so with fundamentally concerning disruption.
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