Eden Hazard the conductor as Belgium ease by Hungary
Toby Alderweireld, Michy Batshuayi, Hazard and Yannick Carrasco score in Toulouse
Hungary’s Adam Szalai looks on as Belgium’s Eden Hazard starts another attack. Photograph: Michael Dalder Livepic/Reuters
They made heavier weather of this than it might seem, but the Euro 2016 draw remains wide open for Belgium. For long spells they were exhilarating against a Hungary side whose open approach served them perfectly but, not for the first time, profligacy bred unnecessary nerves. In the end they saw the job through convincingly, late goals from Michy Batshuayi, Eden Hazard and Yannick Carrasco adding to Toby Alderweireld’s early header, although Wales will surely provide sterner opposition in the last eight.
Belgium needed to wear the garb of favourites convincingly and their task was done no harm by the withdrawal of Laszlo Kleinheisler, a brisk and incisive figure in the Hungary midfield, who suffered an injury in the warm-up. Hungary, the over-performers but suddenly understrength, replaced zip with bulk in the form of 6ft 3in Adam Pinter.
Whether cowed by the occasion or jolted by the reshuffle, they risked being blown away by a fast, agile Belgium start. The only surprise about Alderweireld’s goal was that it took 10 minutes to arrive. Belgium are at their most effective when afforded space in which to counter; they often look laboured against massed defences but Hungary were allowed a generous measure of possession early on and duly punished when they squandered it.
Kevin De Bruyne had already had two cracks at goal, also setting up a decent chance for Romelu Lukaku that Gabor Kiraly saved with his chest, when a free-kick beyond the left corner of the penalty area offered further opportunity for menace. The playmaker’s inswinger was accurate but Hungary’s marking, Gergo Lovrencsics appearing to be the guilty party as Alderweireld ran off him, was of a standard that can undo a tournament’s worth of good work and the resulting header was simple.
It had quickly become a case of limiting the early damage. De Bruyne was untouchable and, running on to a sweeping pass from Lukaku, might have done better than win a corner via Kiraly’s legs. Dries Mertens – starting, as expected, in place of Carrasco – squandered a chance to provide a simple finish for Hazard or De Bruyne after escaping down the right before the latter, having again combined with Lukaku, headed straight at Kiraly from the penalty spot.
The stream of chances and half-chances only quickened. By the time De Bruyne flipped a free-kick off the top of the bar 10 minutes from half-time, via a fingertip from Kiraly, Lukaku had slashed wide and De Bruyne, yet again, had poked a shot at the goalkeeper. Although not by design, Kiraly was in his element and was called on once more before the interval when denying Mertens, who had been granted time and space inside the area, down to his right. Adam Lang made a last-ditch block from the Napoli winger moments later and Hungary, somehow, had made it to the halfway point with a stake in proceedings.
Their performance had been summed up when Hazard, hardly known for his physical gifts, simply bounced their promising 21-year-old midfielder Adam Nagy off him before making for goal. Any flickers came from range, Lovrencsics and Balazs Dzsudzsak missing narrowly, but this was a match being played at two wildly different speeds.
The rigours of tournament football seemed to have caught up with Hungary and it was no surprise when Zoltan Gera, a 37-year-old playing his fourth game in 12 days, was replaced by Akos Elek in for the second half. It was equally predictable that Belgium found an opening with 20 seconds of the restart, Kiraly arching to touch over a searing drive from Hazard.
An already stretched affair risked becoming more so as Hungary committed men forwards, Elek’s presence added a degree of sharpness and he contrived a slick interplay with Adam Szalai, in the 50th minute that resulted in the striker shooting wide of the near post. Szalai, posed to head Dzsudzsak’s dipping cross past Thibaut Courtois, was then denied by a superb Thomas Vermaelen intervention and Belgium, for all their dominance, risked the onset of nerves through not having put their opponents away.
There were certainly signs of a drop in their tempo as the three-quarter point approached. Hungary were probing higher up the pitch now and Courtois was given his most exacting test yet when an effort from Pinter, hitherto laboured, flicked off Alderweireld and demanded an acrobatic stop. A free-kick then landed at Roland Juhasz’s feet beyond the far post and his daisycutter flew inches wide. For the first time, and incredibly given what had passed before, Belgium were living dangerously.
The fear was short-lived and Hazard, who had enjoyed himself throughout, killed the match with two flourishes. His left-sided centre gave Batshuayi, who had only been on the pitch for two minutes, a straightforward finish and then, seconds later, he cut in to shoot across Kiraly. Carrasco ran clear at the end to raise hopes that Belgium might have the cutting edge of winners after all.