It wasn't supposed to go this way. They had just beaten Hungary comprehensively. Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne had been giving ballet lessons on a football field up till now. Belgium started the match really well. In fact they almost scored, thrice, in a single move. And the Radja Nainggolan screamer was supposed to be a sign of things to come. Belgium were supposed to win the game, and then bring an end to Portugal's (and thus a neutral football fan's) misery in the semi-finals.
But it was not to be. Instead, it's Wales who have now reached the semi-finals of the European Championships, knocking out favourites Belgium. It was an incredible performance from the Welsh that eventually vanquished the Belgians. Sam Vokes, a Welsh substitute on the night, who hadn't scored for his country in a competitive game since 2008, stood dumbfounded at the final whistle, his face a replica of pure shock. It was a face that tells the story of the match much better than any match-report will tell you. He scored Wales' third and final goal on the night, and he couldn't believe it by the end of it.
Wales' tenacity in defence when Eden Hazard and Co came knocking at the doors and their efficiency up front was the standout difference. The early triple-headed chance, where Yannick Carrasco's close range shot was saved by Wayne Hennesey and the two rebounds from Thomas Muenier and Hazard that followed and were blocked by Welsh bodies flung at the shot, was not foreshadowing a dominant Belgium display. Instead it stood example to Wales' dogged will. They just did not want to lose on the night.
Belgium were very obviously disadvantaged in the defence department. After losing out Thomas Vermaelen through suspension and Jan Vertonghen to ankle injury, the Red Devils came out with a glued-up back four. Jason Denayer replaced Vermaelen in the heart of the defence and Jordan Lukaku came in for Vertonghen as left-back, and as coach Marc Wilmots said after the game, their inexperience showed. Wales' first and third goals were headers on dead ball opportunities, where Denayer and Lukaku's dodgy marking and dodgier attempted jumps to clear the ball were glaring.
Belgium, already missing their captain Vincent Kompany and veteran Nicolas Lombaerts in defence, would feel they were dealt a bad hand with further injuries and suspension. But then again, most of football feels like that. And their inexperienced defence doesn't take anything away from a masterful Wales performance. Aaron Ramsey was godlike in the game; he was omnipresent. The Arsenal midfielder passed forward decisively, created more chances than anyone else on the field, and set up two of the Welsh goals. Their talisman Gareth Bale didn't get on the scoresheet, but was instrumental every time Wales broke forward. And it was his excellent long ball that found Ramsey on the right, who then squared in Hal Robson-Kanu for the second goal.
And the Welsh defence frustrated the Belgian attack out of the game. James Chester, Ashley Williams (who also got the equaliser) and Ben Davies exhibited some good old staunch British defending. But where they were effective, the Belgian attack was wasteful.
In the end, despite the depleted squad, Belgium would do well to recognise that it was their poor finishing that let them down. On one end of the field, Wales pounced on their chances like it was an open bar, and on the other end Belgium were extravagant and let good chances slip through their fingers. Romelu Lukaku led the charge in the matter, throwing away a vanilla chance to equalise when Belgium were 2-1 down. Muenier, who has been a revelation this tournament, put in an excellent curling ball in from the right, and Lukaku had a completely free header barely two arm-lengths away from goal. But he criminally mistimed his glance to send the ball wide. He got another similar chance, one that came from Muenier again, but this time he wasn't even close to the ball's trajectory as Williams rose and cleared it away. Lukaku's Achilles' heel is his inconsistency. One day he acts like the best striker in Europe, the next day he just acts.
Fellaini's introduction in the game saw Belgium make some legitimate aerial threats, but the threats all ended up being hollow.
Another big reason for Belgium's bluntness going forward was Hazard and De Bruyne's lacklustre game. The two have been Belgium's best players all tournament, and though Hazard did try to work the magic he conjured up against Hungary, De Bruyne was completely absent on the night. His tame direct free-kick in the second half, one that looked like he had passed the ball to Hennessey, encapsulated his performance on the night.
And thus went away another chance for Belgium to break out at a major competition. Yet another quarter-finals loss confirms their status as underachievers. But it would extremely harsh to call them just that. They have played some thrilling football to get here, but they know they should've gone farther. Two years ago, Belgium's superstars were younger still, and the team were knocked out in the quarter-finals by a solitary Argentine goal – an incredible volley from Gonzalo Higuain. Today, those supremely gifted players are still young, but have a bit of experience, a taste of tournament football. And perhaps the Euro 2016 could have been theirs with a bit of luck and a fully fit squad.
This is Belgium's golden generation, one that is promises great things. The crazy thing about them is that in two years time, when the next World Cup comes around, their oozing talent will still be mostly young and in its prime. In 2018, Thibaut Coutois will be 26, Toby Alderweireld will be 29 Vertonghen 31, Muenier 26, Nainggolan 30, Axel Witsel 29, Mousa Dembele 30, De Bruyne 27, Hazard 27, Carrasco 24, Lukaku 25, and Michy Batshuayi 24. Russia will be this golden generation's last chance. And only football can be so cruel as to let a team like Belgium, with its astonishing talent, run dry.
In all probability, coach Marc Wilmots will be leaving the team. And who knows what Belgium can accomplish if the right man to push them comes in to take charge. It did feel that Euro 2016 was Belgium's time, but maybe it was just almost their time. Maybe their time is still to come.
First Published On : Jul 2, 2016 10:30 IST