Defending champions Portugal have been eliminated from the Euros. Having barely navigated their way through an extremely difficult group, their journey ended on Sunday with Belgium getting the better of them in the round of 16. The only goal of the game came from a tricky shot executed nicely by Borussia Dortmund winger Thorgan Hazard.
Just the one goal, but it was enough
Looking ahead at this match, it seemed likely that if the deadlock is broken early enough, the remaining part would be extremely interesting with both sides boasting notable attacking quality. However, the one goal, though scored in the 42nd minute, was all in terms of hitting the back of the net. You wouldn’t have expected a team led by a five-time Ballon d’Or winner, a joint-record holder in the number of international goals, to struggle for clear-cut opportunities, but that’s what happened. You’d also expect at least one of Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard or Kevin De Bruyne to score, it as it turned out, they didn’t need to on this occasion.
Diogo Jota wasted a decent chance early on by dragging his shot well wide of the target, and once again in the second half by blasting over the bar from near the penalty spot. Bernardo Silva seemed to be playing too deep to make a tangible contribution upfront, mostly doing defensive work. Cristiano Ronaldo, who not many expect to do a lot of defensive work or drop deep to help in the buildup, did just that. While his effort was certainly commendable, his team obviously lacked his ruthlessness closer to the opposition goal.
Portugal boss Fernando Santos made some surprising changes to his team, most notably Joao Palhinha at the base of midfield instead of Danilo Pereira or William Carvalho. Renato Sanches. who earned his place in the team with excellent previous performances, was also there, along with Joao Moutinho who replaced Bruno Fernandes.
On the other hand, Belgium was aligned in a 3-4-3 system, or 3-4-1-2 with De Bruyne slightly deeper than Lukaku and Eden Hazard upfront. Axel Witsel and Youri Tielemans were in the central area, flanked by Thorgan Hazard on the left and Thomas Meunier on the right. The middle line of four gave Roberto Martinez’s team width in that area, allowing T. Hazard and Meunier to push far up the pitch whenever possible.
No surprise that he was involved in that opener.
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Meanwhile, Witsel and Tielemans were more than capable of matching everything Sanches and Moutihno threw at them in terms of physicality. They were relentless in defending the area around their box, ruthlessly pursuing any Portugal player who even thought of setting up camp and doing damage there.
And speaking of Portugal, Palhinha didn’t exactly justify being given a place in the team ahead of Danilo and Carvalho. He worked very hard, but he often looked like a player who stumbled upon football above his own level. After a few mistakes and minor refereeing decisions that went against him, he started showing nerves, something never helpful when facing a top team at a major international tournament. Santos probably judged his two preferred defensive midfielders needed a bit of rest after the very demanding matches played in the group, but there can be very little doubt that his team missed their composure ahead of the back line. Danilo came on for Palhinha after 78 minutes, but by that time it seemed too late.
The same could, perhaps, be said of Santos’ decision to bring on Fernandes and Joao Felix, though that came more than 20 minutes earlier. The two playmakers looked lively, particularly Felix, but Belgium were already set very well to protect the lead at that point.
Brych struggles with tension
As the game progressed into its final third, tensions arose between the players of the two teams, with Pepe unsurprisingly in the thick of things most of the time. But it was even less surprising that referee Felix Brych failed to maintain control in those situations. Questionable calls, though mostly of the sort which people generally consider minor ones, followed each other fast and his attitude towards the players did nothing to calm them down. On several occasions, a brawl seemed on the brink of breaking out.
The German referee is well known for this sort of thing, despite his vast experience at major international tournaments. He doesn’t seem capable of maintaining authority over fired up players, and his attempts to do so mostly give out an aura of arrogance, rather than competence. Perhaps it’s time for UEFA and FIFA to reconsider his place among the officials named for such big occasions.
Be that as it may, Belgium have secured a place in the quarterfinals, where they will face Italy on Friday in what promises to be a thrilling encounter. Martinez will, however, be worrying about the availability of De Bruyne and Eden Hazard for that match, having had to replace his two arguably best players through injuries.
Belgium’s victory seems deserved despite the fact that Portugal had more of the ball and took a total of 23 shots, compared to their six. Having had to chase the game for more than half its length, Portugal’s domination in numbers is not really a surprise, but they very rarely threatened Thibaut Courtois in the Belgium goal with anything serious.
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