Belgium can take a lot from Portugal win, but injuries to Hazard and De Bruyne are a worry

Belgium faced and passed the Cristiano Ronaldo test as they defeated Portugal in the last-16 of the Euro 2020 championships, but injuries will leave them worried.

Ahead of the game between the two sides much of the focus was on their respective star strikers. Romelu Lukaku for Belgium, Ronaldo for Portugal. The Juventus striker remains one of the best forwards in the world, and since his move to Italy, the Inter Milan man has added a direct effectiveness to his game not just in front of goal, but with his teammates alongside him.

Lukaku was more impressive on Sunday night, at the heart of a few dangerous counterattacks. But really, this was not a golden game for the pair. The danger came from elsewhere. Portugal, in truth, rarely threatened, and Thibaut Courtois could be calm for most of the game. Thorgan Hazard was ultimately the difference in Seville. The fact it was Eden Hazard’s younger brother who came through for Roberto Martinez’s side should provide both encouragement and a cause for concern.

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The 28-year-old younger sibling of the eldest Hazard has had a perfectly decent career of his own, but he has never been regarded as the equal of the Real Madrid forward. His strike was well hit, though Rui Patricio might rue the error he made with his footwork as the ball initially came towards him.

Thorgan Hazard

Image credit: Getty Images

Nevertheless, his intervention was decisive at a time when there was precious little inspiration on the pitch, however frenetic and dramatic events became towards the end of the second half. Belgium should bring this experience into the quarter-finals against Italy, who may be able to exact more pressure in the later stages of the match with the resilience they have shown in their own games.

Belgium can be pleased that despite the flurry of fouls, anger and yellow cards, they were able to hold firm against a team of Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva, Joao Felix, Bruno Fernandes and others. There was concern their backline of thirty-somethings would start to creak and flounder under pressure, but instead they were relatively calmed. Their experience rather than their age was at the forefront of their performance, and meant that a desperate but uninspired frontline for Portugal was calmly dealt with.

However, there are concerns on the horizon for Martinez and his players. Kevin De Bruyne went off injured with an ankle injury, and while it is entirely possible that he will be back for the quarter-finals, the expression on his face betrayed worry that things are more serious. He did not enjoy an easy season with Manchester City as he was again affected by injuries which threaten to derail his career as he approaches his thirties. While it appears that Pep Guardiola has the contacts to get him back in action whenever injury strikes for now, he will not be able to hold back the natural decay that occurs with players approaching the end of their careers. Nevertheless, Belgium may now have to prepare for Friday’s game against Italy without the certain inclusion of perhaps the best player still in the tournament.

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Things are made more complicated by Hazard Sr. It did not appear to be a full, severe hamstring pull, but he immediately decided to come off towards the end of the game when something in his muscle gave him discomfort. It was a sensible move, but it means that there is also a chance that Belgium will have to turn to the far more prosaic Yannick Carrasco. Hazard has not been anything like the player Chelsea let go to Spain, but he definitely appears to be enjoying the pressure-lite ambience of life away from the Bernabeu.

The win over Portugal will give Martinez and his players confidence. Italy are not especially better than the players they have already faced, and beaten. They have shown that their defence is not a liability, but is a perfectly capable backline that should be able to handle the challenges most teams can present. Lukaku continues to improve after his time in Italy, and there are no huge weaknesses across the team. But it can’t be ignored that with only a few days to prepare for a new team, style and challenge, they will be doing so with fundamentally concerning disruption.

Euro 2020

Opinion: Morata delivers for Spain – what more do people want from him?

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Opinion: Morata delivers for Spain – what more do people want from him?

Here’s a quick question: what do Kylian Mbappe, Harry Kane, Thomas Muller, Gerard Moreno, Eden Hazard, Gareth Bale and Bruno Fernandes all have in common?

They all have fewer goals at Euro 2020 than Alvaro Morata.

Here’s another one. If we use “forward” in the loosest sense to mean anyone in the frontline of Spain’s 4-3-3, then Morata is competing with Dani Olmo, Pablo Sarabia, Gerard Moreno, Ferran Torres, Adama Traore and Mikel Oyarzabal for a starting spot. Those players, between them, have scored 21 goals for La Roja.

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Morata alone has scored 20.

So what does he have to do in a Spain shirt to convince everyone he deserves to start for his country?

I know, you’re screaming “finish chances!” at your device right now. According to FBRef, Morata has scored just once this tournament from 2.8 expected goals. Reasonable people might argue scoring penalties is different to open play, but even so, that’s still an xG of 1.7. He’s not clinical.

Through all the competitions FBRef have advanced data on in the past few seasons, Morata has scored 53 non-penalty goals from 55.8 xG. It’s not anything special. But he’s regularly converting the chances he gets. And it’s not like strikers are generally overperforming their xG by huge margins. Someone like Jamie Vardy, who most football fans would consider a “clinical finisher”, has taken 54.9 xG from the data collected and converted 56 times.

It’s better, but we’re not talking about wildly different rates to Morata here. Part of this is just how we measure finishing. Morata’s errors can be about mistiming his runs to end up offside, or failing to connect with crosses. None of that shows up in the data.

And it’s not quite as though Morata has a glittering club career to back him up. After looking very promising in limited minutes as a youngster at Real Madrid, he got a move to Juventus in which he was expected to prove himself one of Europe’s finest marksmen. In reality, he found himself in and out of the team, getting goals and assists when he was on the pitch but never fully earning manager Max Allegri’s trust.

After a year back at Real Madrid that was arguably his best, scoring nearly a goal every 90 minutes, he had another fresh start at Chelsea. Again, he wasn’t quite trusted all the time. He started that first season in red hot form but badly tailed off, scoring 10 goals before the New Year and just one after. It’s not a satisfying narrative. Had he started slowly but ended strong, people would have felt good about him. This way around, it just feels like he crumbled.

After Maurizio Sarri seemed to grow bored of him the following January, Morata has spent time with Atletico Madrid and Juventus, not really setting the world alight in either situation. This is someone who scores a solid if not incredible amount without ever looking that comfortable doing it, and someone who many managers don’t quite seem to trust.

There is a view that Morata is too mentally fragile to thrive as a prolific goalscorer. He has a reputation for taking setbacks poorly, for finding it difficult to deal with the natural up and down rhythms of being a top footballer. Striker is a particularly tough position for this. Even the most clinical scorers only score about 20% of their shots, so the experience of a goalscorer is knowing you’re going to fail four out of five times, but keeping buying that lottery ticket anyway.
The best centre forwards often seem to have personalities where they can just brush off failure like it’s no big deal. You think of players like Vardy or Ian Wright, who had to fight and scrap their way to the top from the lowest levels. Or you can look at someone like Romelu Lukaku, who was so completely driven to help his family and play professional football by age 16, despite what anyone would tell him. Those kinds of people have the personalities to miss chances and just keep going.

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But for all this, he’s been scoring regularly at international level. Yes, some of those goals came against minnows Lichtenstein and Malta, but he’s also scored against Germany, Italy and Croatia. He’s the country’s first reliable goalscorer since David Villa and Fernando Torres retired. That’s the Alvaro Morata Luis Enrique sees. It’s the striker who makes his manager say Spain “play with Morata and 10 more”. Perhaps he looks at Morata as someone who needs all the support he can get. Perhaps this is simply his honest view.
Morata is not always the most refined player around. You expect a handsome Spanish striker like him to have the technique of an angel, but that’s not his game at all. Even when he scores, he doesn’t always look like he’s striking the ball too cleanly. He gets caught by the flag so often that a parody Twitter account of Morata lists his current location as “offside”. He’s rough around the edges. But is this automatically the worst thing in the world?

Spain are otherwise the most refined team at the European Championship. Every pass, every movement, every touch feels like perfect precision. Everything is always in its right place, slowly working its way forward, until it gets to Morata playing to an entirely different beat.

Alvaro Morata

Image credit: Getty Images

This might actually be a good thing. Morata’s offside record, while overblown, speaks to the type of player he is. He’s always on the shoulder of the last man, looking to run in behind and stretch teams. Spain, with their classic possession-heavy style, can often be caught with two many players coming towards the ball and looking to receive it to feet.

In the later years of their golden generation, they had so many wonderful technicians coming short every time, with no one making the run in behind that would open up opportunities for those creative players to make a pass that can really hurt teams. As sides naturally want to close down those wonderful Spanish midfielders, it opens up space for Morata to make those runs. He’s taking a risk, so sometimes he’ll get caught going too soon. If your attackers never get caught offside, it’s a sign you’re playing it too safe and refusing to stretch teams where you can do serious damage.

Morata’s the joker in the pack for Enrique’s precision Spain side. While everyone else is conducting a perfect symphony, he’s shredding a guitar without worrying how the song goes. It feels abrasive to watch him lack so much of that Spanish composure, but he offers qualities that the side certainly need. Without him bursting forward and taking those scruffy shots, Spain would be at greater risk of looking static and plodding.

Considering his track record, the question is whether he can hold things together for the whole tournament. Enrique and the Spain squad need to keep Morata feeling confident somehow, because they need the things he does. It’s not always going to look great, but if Spain are to win Euro 2020, Morata is absolutely going to be a key player for the side.

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How Lukaku became the complete centre-forward

It doesn’t feel long ago that many were questioning whether Romelu Lukaku could do it at the highest level. It doesn’t feel like it because it wasn’t. Lukaku’s time in English football – first at Chelsea, with a loan to West Brom, then more prominently at Everton and Manchester United – felt a case of ‘almost, but not quite’. He didn’t become a first team starter at Chelsea. He wasn’t able to propel Everton into a regular European side. United didn’t become a title-winning side with Lukaku leading the line. He only once broke 20 league goals in a season. It seemed a little anticlimactic.

But the moment he set foot in Serie A, everything just seemed to click for him. The goals are the headline, with 23 and 24 in the last two seasons. Unlike at United, he’s taking the penalties, and that obviously helps. But he’s become a much more rounded player, causing defenders all sorts of different problems in a way he couldn’t quite before. Antonio Conte seemed to just get how to help Lukaku thrive from day one. And he brought his Inter form to the Euros in Belgium’s first game against Russia, and surely has a strong case as the best individual performer in the tournament so far. So how has he become so dominant now when his Premier League form was patchy?

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A big part of the story has been understanding just what he is. Standing at 6’3 and being so well built even as a teenager, he brings with him certain preconceptions. His managers in England – Steve Clarke, Roberto Martinez (now of course at Belgium), Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – all responded to that in different ways. Clarke – strangely – got the best out of him at West Brom. Lukaku was clearly a cut above his teammates, so the gameplan would at times be ‘give it to Romelu’. He’d have to be the complete striker, doing the lot, and he thrived at it. Martinez, too, wanted Lukaku to offer a range of skills. He’d run in behind, hold the ball up, link well and obviously score goals. Everton’s struggles under Martinez often meant he would have to carry the side, which he did excellently in his final season if less well the year before.

But it was Mourinho who had other ideas. United had just come off a season with Zlatan Ibrahimovic leading the line. What Mourinho wanted was another target man who could hold the ball up, then bring runners into play. We saw him bulk up physically to try and become this all focal point in the mould of Didier Drogba. He did a solid job of it, but never looked entirely comfortable in the role. So much of what made him tick was deliberately stripped out of his game.

Lukaku might look like a target man, but he’s in many ways a very different profile of player. The player he is most reminiscent of is Ruud van Nistelrooy. Like the Dutchman, he has great body strength and a deceptively good dribble on him. Van Nistelrooy’s famous goal against Fulham, in which he took the ball all the way from the halfway line, feels like the kind of strike Lukaku would love to score. But what they both share the most is an instinctive understanding of space. He’s arguably the best striker in the world right now at recognising which channels to run into every time. Both Inter and Belgium have understood this, and play directly to his strengths. His goal in the Milan Derby last February summed up his trademark move. The Belgian drove forward with the ball at his feet, sees the space open to his left before the opposition defenders, and is able to drag the ball into that area to open up a great shooting opportunity.

We saw those exact qualities against Russia. His first goal was a classic poacher’s finish, being more alert to the situation than anyone else and capitalising on a defender’s mistake. The second was one where he ran in behind to great effect, showing the quality Manchester United wasted by attempting to convert him to a target man. But it was in between where he nearly pulled off his trademark. The ball broke to him into space and he dragged defenders wide with him, opening up room for Leander Dendoncker to break into the box. Lukaku played Dendoncker in well, but the Wolves player blasted his shot over the bar. It was classic Lukaku, but this time in service of someone else, showing he can offer more than simply goalscoring.

Fortunately, he has a manager who understands these qualities and how they have developed over time. “He’s not the same player he was three years ago,” Martinez said recently.

Now he is able to create many more spaces for his teammates and we need to make the most of that with the national team too

Martinez has given Lukaku licence to link more and use his ability to drive into space to help others.

This has taken on more importance as Belgium have lacked key stars. Kevin De Bruyne missed the opening game through injury, and it’s unclear when he will return or if he will do so at 100%. Eden Hazard was also short of fitness against Russia, and that speaks to his ongoing troubles since joining Real Madrid. It doesn’t look like we’re going to see the Hazard of old at this tournament. This means Belgium need more from Lukaku, not just as a point striker but a rounded threat. He’s certainly started off by doing that.

This does change the way Belgium play. A side built around De Bruyne and Hazard is by necessity one of lots of little cute passes. That would be a team that wants to play possession football and attempt to create chances through eye-of-the-needle passes. This Belgium is slightly different. The Belgium built around Lukaku has to be more about transitions and opening up space to break quickly on the counter. While Hazard might be a problem, De Bruyne can slide back in as a complimentary piece here pretty naturally. The Manchester City man has always been the one who quickens the tempo, so linking with Lukaku should be closer to his natural speed than the work Pep Guardiola has him do.

What Lukaku won’t be doing is standing with his back to goal looking to bring down long balls and play in wingers running past him. Doing this is as unnatural to him as it would have been for Van Nistelrooy. Lukaku needs to be running into space in order to do what he does best. This can involve playing a better style of football to find him than simply hoofing the ball up the pitch, which isn’t a problem for Martinez’s attacking instincts. Belgium are here to play good football, which suits the modern iteration of Lukaku down to the ground.

Lukaku’s next opponent is Denmark, and that’s sure to be an emotional affair. After Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest, Lukaku was first to lend his voice in support of his club teammate, shouting “Chris, I love you” at the TV cameras. It was obvious playing after seeing Eriksen’s incident affected him. “It was difficult to play because my mind was with my team-mate Christian,” he said after the Russia win. It’s certain to play on his mind on Thursday. As much as Eriksen is a good friend of his, Lukaku has a job to do.

The key thing for Denmark will probably be staying in a compact block and denying the space in behind. If Lukaku is forced to have everything in front of him, he won’t be able to use his now signature move and find a channel to attack. This would force Belgium’s attack to become more static and predictable. But you’d have to back Lukaku to find the space in the end. Staying concentrated in a low block for 90 minutes isn’t easy work, and the striker will be there to pounce the exact moment anyone makes a mistake.

Is there anyone at Euro 2020 in a better moment right now than Lukaku? After two excellent years in Italy and a slightly tweaked Belgium team built more around him, he’s here to get serious. While he’s been dominating Serie A, recognition across the continent and, especially in England, has sometimes eluded him. If he keeps up this form for the next month, it is unlikely anyone will ever doubt him again. It’s Lukaku’s world, and we’re just living in it.

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