Euro 2020 news and features -Opinion: Defence doesn't matter when De Bruyne and Lukaku are playing this well
During the first half it looked as if Belgium were in real trouble and had been found out by an energetic and well-organised Denmark team. Then Roberto Martinez brought on Kevin De Bruyne, and that changed everything. Together with Romelu Lukaku, the Manchester City man tormented Denmark and put down a marker, writes Pete Sharland.
'He's sent a reminder after the Champions League final' - Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne shines once more
Both goals Belgium scored during their come from behind 2-1 win against Denmark on Thursday were incredibly beautiful things. An amorous Ally McCoist on co-commentary for ITV said they were both “works of art.”
Yet for the first-half the only kind of art Belgium resembled was some beige paint drying.
That’s when Roberto Martinez turned to his one-eyed bandit.
La joie des joueurs belges face au Danemark
Image credit: Getty Images
The introduction of Kevin De Bruyne single-handedly changed this match. The Manchester City man was nothing short of magnificent.
The control and awareness that he showed in the build-up to the equaliser was sublime. The entire world thought he was going to shoot. Nobody thought that after the silkiest of touches to take two Danish defenders out of the game he would then square it for the on-rushing Thorgan Hazard to gleefully slam past a helpless Kasper Schmiechel.
McCoist was beside himself in the commentary box, “It’s a PlayStation goal!” coming out of the mouth of the swooning Scotsman.
But Belgium had more up their sleeve.
The second goal was as good if not better; quick and incise passing in and around the Denmark box that ended with the purest of strikes from De Bruyne with his supposedly weaker foot that left Schmeichel with no chance.
In 25 minutes De Bruyne had rendered all the good work done by the Danes in the first-half meaningless as he put his stamp on this tournament. Insert your own joke about De Bruyne not needing his damaged eye because he has them in the back of his head.
This new version of Lukaku is so problematic for opposition defence because of his ability to go wide. His touch and control is as good as anyone and with a stronger right foot now he is an absolute nightmare to try and deal with. The work he put in for both goals, creating the space for his runners and finding them with intelligent passes, cannot be missed.
Both De Bruyne and Lukaku had inauspicious build-ups to this tournament despite winning their respective domestic leagues. The former had to cope with those brutal injuries sustained in the Champions final, which his team lost, whilst the latter watched his favourite manager walk away from the club over the financial concerns that then resulted in some unforeseen speculation about his own future.
But if you look at their club seasons there is an argument to be had that no team in Euro 2020 arrived with their two best players in better form than De Bruyne and Lukaku. Together they can unlock any defence.
Kevin De Bruyne was instumental in Belgium's comeback
Image credit: Getty Images
It is worth pointing out that there is a pretty big problem for Belgium at the other end of the pitch. Jason Denayer was brought in for Dedryck Boyata and proceeded to give the ball away inside two minutes to allow Denmark to open the scoring. Neither he nor his more experienced partners in the back three, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, looked capable of dealing with the surprising oomph with which Yussuf Poulsen and Martin Braithwaite were attacking them with.
It has to be a real concern for Martinez, his team are potentially scheduled to face Italy in the quarter-finals and you have to think the likes of Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne will be more clinical in taking their chances. As it is, the Danish had a host of chances in the final ten minutes, including Braithwaite hitting the bar. Even at the death Tielemans was robbed of the ball in the last seconds to give Denmark one last chance.
The Spaniard has a tough hand to deal with, his golden generation defence has aged far quicker than the attack and the likes of Zinho Vanheusden, Hannes Delcroix and Sebastiaan Bornauw were considered too raw for this tournament, perhaps we will see them in Qatar. Nevertheless he has to be worried about vulnerable Vertonghen in particular looked, and a 35-year-old Thomas Vermaelen is hardly an inspiring replacement. Perhaps the solution is to pair Boyata and Denayer either side of Alderweireld but even that has its flaws.
In reality the true answer is to do what he has done for large chunks of his Belgium regime, rely on his attackers to bail him out. The fitter De Bruyne gets the more dangerous Belgium get, and if Eden Hazard can turn those flashes we saw on Thursday into something approaching his best form then who knows. They’re the second team through to the last 16 and it feels as if they are yet to get anywhere close to their top gear.