Belgium once again suffered another anticlimactic tournament exit as they were outclassed and outfought by Roberto Mancini’s Italy in the last eight of Euro 2020 in Munich on Friday.
With a 2-0 deficit late in the first half, Roberto Martínez was asked to come up with something special from this special group of Belgian players. They did manage to pull a goal back after Romelu Lukaku converted a fortunate penalty just before the break to give the Red Devils a lifeline, but in truth Belgium were simply second-best, which has been the bottom line for all of their deemed success in recent years and it is hard to understand how they were ranked as the world number one side by FIFA.
Belgium’s failings began in Brazil back in the 2014 World Cup quarter-finals when they were bested by Argentina in a 1-0 defeat under Marc Wilmots. The Belgian also led the national side in the 2016 Euros, at which they suffered an embarrassing defeat to Wales in the quarter-finals. It asked questions of the manager and his players, who were expected to go much further having the ‘Golden Generation’ in their ranks. For all the quality that they possess in players like Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard, the Red Devils have always underwhelmed at major tournaments. Wilmots was dismissed after their poor Euros campaign and replaced by Martínez.
Heading into the World Cup in Russia in 2018, Belgium were expected to put the Euro 2016 horrors behind them and looked to be heading into the tournament in a much stronger position. They managed to battle their way to the semi-finals on that occasion, but they could not get close to eventual winners France in the last-four tie. The cracks of the past were back and they were outclassed and outfought again as the Golden Generation bowed out sooner than expected.
The exact same scenario has happened again at Euro 2020 as the Red Devils have again bowed out before the final. With a few of the familiar faces ageing, notably their defenders, this group has been let down as neither Wilmots nor Martínez has been able to get the best out of a group of players that some of the much bigger nations have looked at with envy in recent years. It would be fair to say that the time would be right for Belgium and Martínez to part ways following the conclusion of this tournament as it is clear that this group of players had the capability to achieve more than they have done. It is also time to relieve some of the old guard and integrate some fresh blood to take this underachieving side in a new direction.
In what was an enthralling tie, Belgium were given an early let off after Leonardo Bonucci found the back of the net from a brilliant Lorenzo Insigne cross but VAR chalked the goal off for an offside touch on the way through.
De Bruyne showed his quality when he turned out of trouble on the edge of the Belgium penalty area and drove the ball forward before slipping in Lukaku, who forced another reactive save from Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Italy did break the deadlock just after the 30-minute mark as Nicolò Barella weaved through a sea of red shirts to fire his shot past Thibaut Courtois into the left side of the goal.
The Azzurri doubled their lead with a fantastic curling strike from Lorenzo Insigne but Giovanni Di Lorenzo gave away a penalty almost immediately after – with Lukaku converting to lift Martínez’s side on the stroke of half-time.
Lukaku nearly scored his and Belgium’s second after some brilliant link-up play between Jeremy Doku and De Bruyne, but Leonardo Spinazzola was able to block the shot and all in all the Belgian effort just wasn’t enough. This is a group of players which could have done so much more at each of the last four tournaments. What a waste.