Belgium hoist profligate Portugal by their own petard

Date published: Sunday 27th June 2021 10:45 - Matthew Stead

Belgium celebrate

Portugal fell out of Euro 2020 in the same way they won the thing five years ago. Cristiano Ronaldo on free-kicks is their existential crisis.

 

It became the symbol of an entire nation’s tournament frustration, a sentence that encapsulated the collective disappointment, exasperation and anger felt at a last-16 elimination. Harry Kane on corners is so Euro 2016. Cristiano Ronaldo on free-kicks is where Euro 2020 is at.

Numbers fifty-one and fifty-two in major international competitions came and went for Ronaldo as the defending champions finally had their reign ended in Spain. The first was palmed to safety by Thibaut Courtois in the first half; the second, much like Fernando Santos’ team as a whole, hit the wall later on.

Ronaldo territory. Ronaldo range. Ian Wright gave his record short shrift at half-time and justifiably so. That effort against Spain at the 2018 World Cup remains the exception to a baffling rule. The 36-year-old standing over a dead-ball and indulging in his usual routine is approaching an existential crisis at this point.

In the end, Portugal were hoist by their own petard. Belgium scored a goal of supreme quality and held on to that lead for dear life, winning while having no shots in the penalty area and blocking five of the opponent’s attempts. Toby Alderweireld, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen were made to look all of their combined 101 years at times yet Portugal lacked that clinical edge, moment of decisive individual brilliance or imagination. As wonderful as the second half was to watch for the neutral, it was also intermittently peppered with aimless crosses or potshots from outside the area when Felix Brych wasn’t reaching for his yellow card.

But if Raphael Guerreiro’s late effort hits the other side of the post and nestles into the back of the net, if Joao Felix didn’t attract the unforgiving ire of Roy Keane by converting one of his chances, if Bruno Fernandes spends more time trying to create something instead of shouting at officials, if Ronaldo lets someone else take a free-kick, if Portugal find a breakthrough they probably deserved, the narrative shifts. But the boot is on the other foot; that sense of unfulfilled potential, of missed opportunities is what engulfed their opponents in France half a decade ago.

There is no shame in this defeat. Renato Sanches engaged in a pulsating midfield battle with Youri Tielemans, Ruben Dias had some excellent moments and one sublime effort from Thorgan Hazard was their undoing. A fresh approach after seven years of Santos is needed but there should be no serious introspection or root-and-branch review. They should be more serious contenders in Qatar next winter.

Belgium will hope their golden promise has been realised by then. As much as their game management towards the end was lacking, they have players capable of deciding these games. Romelu Lukaku’s hold-up play was impeccable, Courtois and Tielemans were integral and the Hazard brothers made the difference. The possible loss of Eden and Kevin De Bruyne is a concern but both they and Italy will be confident of emerging victorious from a tantalising quarter-final.

Portugal would have fancied their chances, too, had they taken them here. For all their pedigree this is a second successive tournament which they have exited at the last-16 stage – and this bore too many painful similarities to their 2018 World Cup farewell at Uruguay’s hands. They depart Euro 2020 with as many wins in 90 minutes as Euro 2016. That tightrope walk looks easy until the balance tips even slightly. Perhaps letting someone else take any free-kick in the opposition half is the answer.

Belgium celebrate at Euro 2020

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