Belgium drop big hint they are building something special
Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard both score twice in five-star rout of Tunisia in Moscow
Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku both scored twice as Belgium thrashed Tunisia 5-2 in Moscow. Photograh: Yuri Cortez/AFP
Are the Belgians building to something unprecedented? This exceptionally gifted side have given their country moments of euphoria before. But the way they have scythed through Group D, scoring eight as they romped to consecutive wins, places them in the realm of potential winners here in Russia.
Belgium ripped Tunisia apart with dazzling economy and sharp passing and will probably baulk at having conceded two - one to Wahbi Khazri, Tunisia’s captain and brightest attacking talent. But overall, it was a day in which this long-feted generation of Flemish stars shone.
“Today we are allowed to celebrate,” Roberto Martinez allowed.
“The next thing is very clear to us. Today the game suited us: it was an open game because Tunisia wanted to win and pressed us really high. And if you get through that line of pressure you are going to create chances. I don’t think we are the finished article. We have a lot to improve upon.”
Romelu’s Lukaku brace of goals leave him tied with Cristiano Ronaldo in the early stages of the Golden Boot subplot and he also becomes the first player since Diego Maradona to hit two goals in consecutive World Cup matches. He achieved that in an hour, after which Roberto Martinez decided to use his glittering bench.
But the substitutions weren’t entirely optional. Eden Hazard came off with a calf strain, while Lukaku suffered ankle ligament damage. Martinez wasn’t particularly concerned but dropped a broad hint that Gareth Southgate’s England defence will not have to face trauma of those combined talents when the teams meet in Kaliningrad next week.
“We will make a decision on that but there will be major changes against England.”
Belgium sought to undo Tunisia with deep, accurate passing from the off, with Toby Alderweireld whipping a clearance around their last lien for Hazard to tear onto. After just four minutes Hazard was through again, forcing a panicked tackle and penalty from Syam Ben Youssef, which he then coolly fired home.
If Tunisia were troubled by the Chelsea forward’s exceptional pace and intelligence, they were helpless against Lukaku’s powerful surging runs through the centre. Dylan Bronn’s 18th minute goal for Tunisia, from a free swung in by Kharzi, gave the Algerian’s jubilant support temporary cause for belief but just before half-time, Lukaku added his second. In the 51st minute Hazard effortlessly nicked the ball around Mustapha for Belgium’s fourth. In a tournament where the set-piece has been of huge significance, Belgium are scoring for fun.
In the 90th minute, Michy Batshuayi hit Belgium’s fifth of the afternoon, arriving with perfect timing to meet a cross from Youri Tielemans. He wheeled away in delight but must have wondered how it wasn’t his fourth of the afternoon.
In a spectacular period of Belgian craft, Batshuayi put himself in the right place to benefit only to see Syam Ben Youssef clear his first strike off the line, his second attempt from close range crack against the crossbar and, with another meaty shot from the crowded Tunisian box, watch in disbelief as Farouk Ben Mustapha denied him with a brilliant reflex save. So it could have been 7-1 before Batshuayi’s persistence was rewarded: he was on the field for 22 minutes, excluding injury time.
By then, a hot rain had begun to fall on the stadium and the ball was skiddy and Kevin de Bruyne was starting to exploit the widening gaps in Tunisia’s tiring defence, flicking the ball through the slivers of space for Batshuayi during that chance-fest. Yannick Carrasco, too, was a more pronounced influence as the game went on and Martinez declared himself happy that Alex Witzel or Carrasco had not shown any signs of bluntness after playing in the Chinese league.
But for all that, there was a period when the score was 2-1 when Belgium became unsure of what they wanted to do; passes broke down; De Bruyne had to retreat deep into his own half to take possession and the Tunisians were, notionally at least, chasing the game. All of that ended when Thomas Meunier stroked a gorgeous pass that intersected with Lukaku’s run at the perfect angle and the finish was exceptional. After Belgium began playing with absolute freedom and authority in the last quarter of the match, Nabil Malooul could only watch. But he rejected the suggestion that performance disappointed the Arab world, watching to see if Tunisia could live with the cream of the European game.
“No we didn’t disappoint the Arab world. I think we have common problems: I don’t think we had a high quality performance and need to change our lifestyle because it isn’t in line with high level football. I am not giving up but I think we need two more generations to reach the required level of performanc. . .we are far, far from the required level.”
Belgium, though are right there: through to the last-16 and ominously confident. The bigger issue, if they are to equal -or better- their 1986 semi-final placing is tradition.
“To be a favourite in the world cup you need to have the knowhow or a previous generation that won it in the modern time,” Martinez said.
“What is said about us won’t change the focus of this group.”
England may avoid the worst of their heat next week but Belgium are in such a flow state right now that it promises to be a torrid assignment anyway.
Belgium: Courtois; Alderweireld, Boyata,Vertonghen; Meunier, De Bruyne, Witsel,Carrasco, Mertens (Tielemans 86); Lukaku (Fellaini 58), Eden Hazard (Batshuayi 68).
Tunisia: Ben Mustapha; Bronn (Nagguez 24), Syam Ben Youssef (Benalouane 41), Meriah, Maaloul; Khaoui, Skhiri, Sassi (Sliti 59); Fakhreddine Ben Youssef, Khazri,Badri. Booked: Sassi.
Referee: Jair Marrufo (USA).