Belgium expose Ireland with ruthless second-half show
Romelu Lukaku grabs two goals as Martin O’Neill’s side well beaten in Bordeaux
Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku scores the first of his two goals in the Euro 2016 Group E match at Stade Matmut Atlantique in Bordeaux. Photograph: Ian Walton/Getty Images
Ireland will have to pick themselves up and defeat Italy on Wednesday if they hope to avoid first round elimination from the European Championships after being well beaten by Belgium in Bordeaux in their second outing of the tournament.
Having been frustrated through the first 45 minutes here, Romelu Lukaku scored twice with Axel Witsel getting the other as Belgium found their form again and simply outplayed Ireland over the course of the second half.
Martin O’Neill’s side turned in a brave performance but always looked second best and ultimately they could not maintain their early resistance against a side that completely dominated midfield, enjoyed the lion’s share of possession and created almost all of the game’s better chances.
Kevin de Bruyne was outstanding for Marc Wilmots’s side whose finishing for the goals was clinical and while Ireland might justifiably question some of Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir’s decisions, it would be hard to argue that they were the difference between the two sides.
The Irish, to be fair, turned in a hugely disciplined first half with everyone working tirelessly to keep a Belgium side, clearly on intent on making up for Monday, at bay.
O’Neill made just one personnel change with Stephen Ward coming in for the injured Jon Walters and Robbie Brady shifting forward into midfield in what was a notionally a 4-2-3-1 formation. Under almost relentless pressure, it consistently looked more like 4-4-1-1 while the sides were still level with Wes Hoolahan roaming in front of two banks of four and acting as both the first line of defence and support for Shane Long whenever there was a break on.
The intensity of the game was remarkable from the outset and while the Irish seemed a little too anxious to get rid of the ball around their own area at times, they coped well in what were clearly very testing circumstances as the likes of Eden Hazard, Yannick Carrasco and, most of all, De Bruyne, poked and prodded at them from just outside the area.
De Bruyne, so disappointing against the Italians, was superb here, controlling the pace and direction of play as he drifted from side to side. His set pieces too were a constant problem for the Irish defence with John O’Shea and Ciaran Clark both producing critically important interventions over the course of the first 45 minutes.
Down the right, Thomas Meunier, presented a major threat on the overlap too but he didn’t have it all his own. Ward did really well at time and at their best, as when he, Hoolahan and Long linked up at times there were hints that the Irish might be able to catch their opponents off guard at some stage.
Too often, though, Ireland’s attacking play broke down at the crucial moment, as when Jeff Hendrick initially did so well as he beat his man then pushed into space on the edge of the Belgian area, only to under hit his pass and provide the opportunity for another break.
The level of effort shown by Long up front was tremendous but he got little protection from the referee and little enough support from team-mates preoccupied with the defensive side of things and ultimately he never managed to serious worry Thibaut Courtois.
Belgium got their breakthrough just three minutes after the break with Brady winning then taking a free kick intended to pick out Long 10 yards out. Not for the first time the striker was on the receiving end of some rough treatment and there was certainly a case to be for a penalty made as Toby Alderweireld won the ball but with his boot at head height. The referee gave nothing, though, and the Belgians broke with De Bruyne skipping over a James McCarthy challenge before crossing for Lukaku who finished quite brilliantly from the edge of the area.
The shape of the game then changed as Ireland immediately sought to push forward and started pressing for an equaliser, but it was not transformed in anything like the way Monday’s had been by the opening goal as the Belgian threat always loomed large.
Sure enough, they got their second with just over an hour gone when Witsel pushed the ball short to Hazard who fed it out Meunier as the midfielder first drifted towards the area then picked up the pace and timed his arrival perfectly to head a curling cross home unchallenged.
James McClean was thrown on for James McCarthy as O’Neill tried to begin engineering a fightback but when the substitute lost possession out on the wing with Ireland heavily committed to attack, the Belgians made the most of the opportunity again and when Hazard found Lukaku on the edge of the area with O’Shea helpless between them, the Everton striker gave Darren Randolph no chance.
O’Neill’s men never gave up the chase but neither Aiden McGeady nor Robbie Keane could make anything like the required impact against a side that was pretty much cruising. Ireland must now hope the Italians go in the game in Lille with one eye on the second round with even a win there most likely to deliver third place in the group now.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Randolph; Coleman, O’Shea, Clark, Ward; Whelan, McCarthy; Hendrick, Hoolahan, Brady; Long. Subs: McClean for McCarthy (63 mins), McGeady for Hoolahan (71 mins), Benteke for Lukaku (82 mins).
BELGIUM: Belgium: Courtois; Meunier, Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Dembele, Witzel; Carasco, De Bruyne, Hazard; Lukaku. Subs: Nainggolan for Dembele (57 mins), Mertens for Carrasco (64 mins), Keane for Long (79 mins).
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey).