Down in the stands, Kevin De Bruyne expressed the way they all felt: nerves shred, tension rising, pleading with his Belgium team-mates to hang on. Alongside him, Eden Hazard sat too. Both men had been withdrawn, injured, now all they could do was watch helpless as their teammates desperately hung on to a Thorgan Hazard goal that would see them go through. If, that was, Portugal couldn’t find a way through – and as the final minutes progressed that must have felt ever more imminent to them, the pressure rising all the time.
In the Belgian goal Thibaut Courtois watched Portugal come at him, the ball constantly launched into his area until, with just seconds remaining João Felix’s shot slipped past the post and Belgium slipped into the next round. Exhausted, relieved, and with two fundamental players awaiting to learn the extent of their injuries, their coach counting the cost of progression, but still standing and heading into the quarter-final.
At the end of a night that wasn’t the classic many expected but didn’t want for excitement, the jeopardy that makes sport a joy even if it doesn’t always feel that way, the current European champions were out. Portugal had lacked clarity but certainly not courage. At the full-time whistle Romelu Lukaku and Cristiano Ronaldo embraced; empty now, there was mutual admiration although neither had scored.
“This could have been the final, and finals are there to be won, not to be played,” Fernando Santos had said. By the end, he was entitled to reflected that his team did play, and certainly pushed, deserving more, but they hadn’t won. Roberto Martí-nez had suggested the first goal would shape the game; in the end, it decided it. Portugal might have got it after five minutes when Diogo Jota shot wide, but it rarely looked like coming in a first half of little incident until it actually did just before the break, Thorgan Hazard sparking an explosion.
In an opening period where both sides seemed as aware of what they had to lose as what they had to gain, only Renato Sanches really gave the game the sense of urgency that would later define it.
Jota’s opportunity was the game’s clearest chance before Courtois pushed away Cristiano Ronaldo’s driven, moving free kick. At the other end, Thomas Meunier’s shot with the outside of his right boot bent beyond post. And twice Belgium escaped from deep only to be stopped by João Palhinha – the first time desperately pulling back Lukaku, the second hacking De Bruyne, a moment that had significant consequences in this match and probably those to come. That was about it until Thorgan Hazard came inside from the left and let fly with a dipping, bending shot into the net beyond Rui Patrício, who might have reacted better.
Belgium had the lead, but not the man to lead them. De Bruyne’s knee had twisted and his ankle had doubled under that challenge from Palhinha and he was forced to make way. Unable to play through the midfield, that left Belgium’s preferred pathway out the ball to Eden Hazard, backing in and holding off opponents, and they looked far from comfortable, almost entirely losing control.
Portugal were not much more subtle or creative, Santos seeking to remedy that with the introduction of João Felix and Bruno Fernandes. But they were at least gathering steam. Ronaldo created for Jota who controlled, turned inside the area and hit a bouncing ball over the bar. Next, João Felix’s header was gathered by Courtois. It was not an onslaught exactly not yet, but this had tilted now. The ball was Portugal’s, Belgium barely even able to get enough possession to occasionally ease the pressure.
Ronaldo hit a free-kick onto the wall, Martínez seeing his side pushed deeper without that even translating into opportunities to break into space until the dying minutes when Lukaku twice led late charges. The tension was growing, an edge emerging, the referee losing track of multiplying tackles. A confrontation was caused by Pepe crashing into Thorgan Hazard, delivering a forearm smash, and as time escaped it was direct, occasionally desperate and all going one direction.
Source: The Guardian