It’s not often this Belgium team, with all their attacking talent, are restricted to just one shot on target. Portugal managed it, but unfortunately for the reigning European champions, Thorgan Hazard’s effort flew into the net and their tournament is over.
Belgium’s golden generation move on to face Italy in the Euro 2020 quarterfinals following their 1-0 win Sunday, but only just. Progress also came at a cost after both Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard were forced off with injuries during a frantic second half that could not have been more different from a largely cautious first 45 minutes.
It’s usually the holy trinity of De Bruyne, Hazard and Romelu Lukaku that win Belgium games, but this time it was down to a back three of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen with a combined age of 101. On a heavy pitch at Estadio Olimpico de la Cartuja in Seville, Spain, they kept Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. at bay, and in the end, one shot on target was all that was needed for the No. 1-ranked side in the world.
“In the first half, we were playing high and putting pressure on Portugal, but looking at that second half, we are lucky to win,” admitted Vermaelen afterward. “Portugal made it really hard for us. We had to really stay focused. It has cost us a lot of energy, but we have some time to recover and now we are looking forward to the game against Italy.”
Before the game, Belgium manager Roberto Martinez asked his players to be “patient” against a Portugal side happy to wait for their chance to counterattack, but for 42 minutes they took it to the point of ponderous. While Renato Sanches drove through midfield to set up an early chance for Diogo Jota and Ronaldo hit the target with a thumping free kick, Belgium’s best moment was Thibaut Courtois using some neat footwork to shimmy around the Juventus forward in his own penalty area.
With half-time approaching, Belgium had barely troubled the Portugal half before Hazard picked up the the ball on the left side of the penalty area. Two touches later and he had put Belgium ahead with a shot that swerved so violently that Rui Patricio started moving in the wrong direction. It was one of only six shots Belgium produced compared to Portugal’s 23.
“In these kinds of games, you have to grab your chances with both hands,” Hazard said. “The goalkeeper expected me to choose the other corner, so the ball went in.”
As good as the strike was, Patricio will be disappointed when he sees it again.
Portugal boss Fernando Santos was bold with his substitutions, bringing on Bruno Fernandes and Joao Felix barely 10 minutes into the second half, and by the end Belgium were hanging on. Ruben Dias had a bullet header beaten away by Courtois, and Raphael Guerreiro hit the post with the Real Madrid keeper motionless and reduced to hoping for the best.
“I didn’t have a lot of work to do in the previous three games, but I knew that wasn’t going to be the case against Portugal,” Courtois said. “I am proud of my teammates — they defended very well.”
The last chance fell to Felix, whose shot in stoppage time skidded wide. Portugal are a better team than the one that won in France five years ago, but you need more than talent to win major tournaments.
At the final whistle, Ronaldo threw down his captain’s armband in frustration. He is set to continue his international career through the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but he’ll be 39 by the time the next Euros is played in Germany, and this could be the last time we see him on this particular stage. He played his part at Euro 2020, scoring five goals and equaling Ali Daei’s record for the most goals in men’s international history, but Belgium never allowed him that one golden chance.
Belgium, meanwhile, found a different way to win and may need to again depending on the availability of De Bruyne and Hazard for the rest of the tournament.
De Bruyne came back out onto the pitch at full-time, but it was noticeable that a number of his teammates broke off from the celebrations to ask about his injury. The Manchester City midfielder does not have a lot of time to recover before the meeting with Italy in Munich on Friday.
In the tougher side of the draw, Belgium already faced a difficult task to reach the final at Wembley on July 11 with a run in the knockout rounds that could include Portugal, Italy and favourites France in the semifinals. It will be harder without two of their star names, but Belgium proved against the reigning champions they are more than just goals. There is grit in there, too.