Belgium 3 Ireland 0: Five things we learnt in Bordeaux

Ireland’s negative approach nullified threat of Hoolahan and handed Belgium initiative

1: Hoolahan ineffective when Ireland don’t look to play

Wes Hoolahan was Ireland's stand out player against Sweden but was largely ineffective against Belgium. The Norwich City schemer's inability to assert his influence in Bordeaux was more down to the way Ireland approached the game, rather than him simply not turning up. Hoolahan thrives on seeing plenty of the ball and drifting between the lines where he can pick a killer pass. But on Saturday Ireland didn't look to play at all, especially in the first half, instead employing a route one exit strategy every time they won it back. Hoolahan lacks the physical presence to make a real impact off the ball, so Ireland's agricultural approach rendered him wasted for much of the game.

2: Romelu Lukaku is the real deal

It was a sobering 90 minutes for Romelu Lukaku against Italy but the Everton striker bounced back in style against Ireland. Granted, John O'Shea and Ciaran Clark aren't quite the same proposition as the Azzurri axis of Barzagli-Bonucci-Chiellini, but Lukaku displayed many of the attributes which make him one of the tournament's best centre forwards. Against Italy his first touch was rank, but from the start in Bordeaux the ball was sticking and he held it up well. He was full of running down the channels and kept at it despite Belgium's final pass often lacking precision. His second goal was a simple finish but his first was excellent, cutting onto his left and curling it past a despairing Randolph. It was a moment of clinical, ruthless centre forward play and essentially ended the game as a contest.


3: Shane Long’s task a thankless one

Nothing summed up Ireland's frustration on Saturday quite like the sight of Shane Long slapping his thighs in exasperation after another long ball was lumped in his general direction and cleaned up by Belgium. Long is a tireless runner and there was one moment early on when Stephen Ward played it into the left channel and he was able to stretch his legs and in turn the Belgian defence. But for the majority of the game Long was receiving the ball with his back to goal and more often than not he had no supporting runners. He was repeatedly fouled and manhandled by Thomas Vermaelen and Toby Alderweireld, and because he was unable to retain the ball in turn Ireland regularly ceded possession. In games like this Long's task is a thankless one and at times it seemed like he was fighting the battle all by himself.

4: Belgium improved but yet to answer critics

It was critical Belgium won in Bordeaux but while their performance was much improved from their opening win against Italy there are still plenty of question marks hanging over Marc Wilmot's side. They were effectively given free reign by Ireland for much of the game and were able to dominate possession throughout. Yet despite this they struggled to create many clear cut chances in the first half, and their final pass often let a lot to be desired. Kevin De Bruyne is clearly instrumental to their hopes but despite him being afforded too much time and space by Ireland it wasn't until the second half their front four began to click. After Lukaku broke the deadlock the Belgians looked edgy until Witsel's header ended the game as a contest. Victory will be morale boosting for Belgium but much sterner tasks lie ahead and they are yet to look like a side capable of winning the tournament.

5: James McCarthy flattering to deceive

With the array of talent Belgium have at their disposal going forward, it was critical James McCarthy delivered a dominant display at the heart of the Irish midfield. His performance against Bosnia and Herzegovina in the qualification play-off, when he nullified the threat of Miralem Pjanic, gave hope he would be able to do similar job on Kevin De Bruyne. Yet despite a bright start which saw him tackle with real snap and bite, McCarthy faded as Belgium got a stranglehold on the game. He was at fault for Belgium’s second goal, not tracking the run of Axel Witsel who headed past Randolph to effectively seal three points. McCarthy is unlikely to be dropped given the paucity of options at Martin O’Neill’s disposal, and he remains best Ireland’s midfield option, but it was frustrating to see him disappear into the shadows when he was needed most.

Patrick Madden

Patrick Madden

Patrick Madden is a former sports journalist with The Irish Times