The best you can describe Belgium’s situation as against Denmark was “awkward.” While a good portion of the Belgian squad is personally involved with Christian Eriksen,Thursday’s game was about Danish unity and recovery. This was clearly a catharsis for fans and players in red alike, a group that went through something horrible and everyone eventually came out ok. It was understandable that Belgium came out wonky and on their heels. How many players wondered what exactly their role was and maybe everyone would be better off if Denmark won. Throw in an inspired and fiery start for Denmark, and it was a challenge. Belgium’s passing was off, they seemed aghast and Denmark’s press, and their organization at times looked kindergarten-adjacent.
But simply filling out a role in a game like this is no tribute at all, and this is the European Championship after all, and this is Belgium’s last chance. So there was a job to do, and at halftime they turned to the one guy to do it, which is Kevin De Bruyne.
Belgium was on the high side of functional in its opening game against Russia. It was on the road, the Belgians got an early goal, and the order of the day was basically not to do anything stupid. Russia would be open to counter attacks, being unable to just sit back at home and being down so early, and Belgium just waited for those chances. They got enough of them, and converted two of them for a comfortable enough 3-0 win without looking worthy of poetry.
De Bruyne missed that game recovering from his broken face from the Champions League final, and without him and Eden Hazard still trying to travel back from whatever version of Narnia he’s been in the past two years, only Lukaku would be considered a truly world-class player. Dries Mertens used to be, but he’s 34 now. Youri Tielemans is close, maybe one day, but is still just about in the highest class of role players at the moment. Yannick Carrasco is lower on the chain of role players. Same for Leander Dendocker.
That wouldn’t do against an inspired Denmark with a one-goal lead. The pivot between halves and the intro of De Bruyne was striking. Belgium had one shot in the first half. They created 0.06 expected goals. If it wasn’t for a little waywardness in Denmark’s finishing, they might have been done for.
The De Bruyne came on, and stuff like this happened:
Tends to happen when you double the amount of world class talents you have on the field. De Bruyne to Lukaku, who just ran by everyone with the ball in a way only he can, back to De Bruyne, who takes out three defenders with one touch and an obscene amount of poise, leading to a tap-in for Thorgan Hazard.
They weren’t done, as Axel Witsel and Eden Hazard came on, and though the former is coming off a long injury absence, and the latter we’ve covered, both looked closer to their normal selves than anyone would have guessed. Witsel provided his customary iron curtain in midfield, giving Belgium’s attackers a better platform and more opportunity to do their thing. Hazard had some clever touches, weaving in and out of space, which led to this gorgeous team goal to win it:
In the second half, Belgium had four shots on target, created 0.86 xG, while halving Denmark’s output, and holding them to just four shots in the second half. De Bruyne led Belgium in chances created with three, while only playing a half. He had the most successful dribbles as well, again, while only playing half the game. Eden Hazard created two chances in just 30 minutes of work. Witsel didn’t misplace a pass in his time in the office.
It was more than a challenge in all sorts of ways for Belgium. The second half showed just how well equipped they are for all of it.