Euro 2016: Lukaku revives Belgium

Romelu Lukaku celebrating his second and Belgium's third goal in the 3-0 disposal of Ireland as Irish goalkeeper Darren Randolph can only look on, with his side's chances of staying in the competition slim after this defeat. For Belgium's golden gene
Romelu Lukaku celebrating his second and Belgium's third goal in the 3-0 disposal of Ireland as Irish goalkeeper Darren Randolph can only look on, with his side's chances of staying in the competition slim after this defeat. For Belgium's golden generation, their prospects are looking rosy once more after coming in for criticism following their opening loss to Italy. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Striker's double against Irish rekindles Red Devils' ambitions and silences team's critics

GROUP E

Belgium 3

Ireland 0

BORDEAUX • Before the game, Marc Wilmots was a manager under pressure, leading a group of talented men who stood accused of not being a team - and whose fault lines appeared to be opening up after they were defeated by Italy.

But Belgium responded with an emphatic 3-0 victory over Ireland yesterday, leaving them well placed to progress from Group E and optimistic about what lies ahead.

Two goals from Romelu Lukaku and another from Axel Witsel brought celebrations that spoke of relief and vindication as well as joy, with Wilmots placing himself at the heart of them.

After his second goal, Lukaku cupped his ear as if to say: "What now?"

Now, Belgium begin.

For Ireland, this is not the end, but it will not be easy to avoid an early departure from France. There is still a small chance a draw may be sufficient but they will almost certainly have to win their final group game against Italy if they are to progress.

The good news for them is that, with qualification secured, Italy's coach Antonio Conte admitted he will make changes. And, while few have talked about it publicly, fewer admitted the temptation: It may suit Italy to finish second, not first.

The team to win this group will get Spain or Croatia; the team who finishes second will get Portugal, Austria, Hungary or Iceland.

Martin O'Neill would be entitled to highlight the resources available to him, a reality few deny. For his opposite number this was the difference, hence the significance of this result; this was not just about the points won but the points made.

Belgium dominated possession, having 64 per cent of the ball in the first half, and there appeared to be desire to take control and make the most of every minute which was reflected in the Belgian fans initially whistling every stoppage, however short.

Which is not to say it yielded a huge number of opportunities, at least to start with. The half-time shot count read 9-2 to Belgium, but only two were on target.

The best opportunities were Eden Hazard's skied shot from 12 metres and a Toby Alderweireld header cleared off the line by Wes Hoolahan.

As Irish resolve strengthened, Wilmots was again left pondering how to forge an effective attacking unit from their golden generation's wealth of striking talent.

It took only three second-half minutes for an answer to emerge, as Kevin de Bruyne, the game's outstanding player, tore down the right before crossing for Lukaku, who opened his body and sent a curling left-footed effort into the bottom corner of the goal.

Witsel put the contest beyond the Irish 13 minutes later, arriving in the box to head the impressive Thomas Meunier's cross beyond Darren Randolph, whose outstretched hand could not quite divert the thumping effort wide.

In the 70th minute, Belgium added a third in a delicious move that encapsulated the invention and panache that has long been expected from this talented squad.

Meunier, again influential, dispossessed James McClean and sent a long ball forward for Hazard down the right. The attacker, outrageously lapping the linesman on the outside, raced to meet the pass before crossing for Lukaku, who swept home with aplomb.

"We left ourselves too open to the counter-attack," Ireland captain John O'Shea told ITV. "They are not a bad side, but at times we helped them out a bit.

Wilmots said: "We're not yet qualified. We have a difficult game to play against Sweden and it's like a final. Anything could happen."

REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 19, 2016, with the headline 'Lukaku revives Belgium'. Print Edition | Subscribe