Euro 2016 round up: Belgium 3 Ireland 0 - and what the result means

Belgium's midfielder Axel Witsel celebrates after scoring the second goal.
Belgium's midfielder Axel Witsel celebrates after scoring the second goal.PHOTO: AFP

Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Thibault Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Axel Witsel... the names just roll off the tongue when one talks about Belgium's national football team.

With a combined transfer fee of £319 million (S$629 million), Marc Wilmots' side are the most valuable amongst the 24 teams at Euro 2016. They are also ranked second in the world by Fifa and briefly, stood top of the standings until Argentina took over at the summit.

But all that YouTube-worthy skill, all that hype and all those big transfers meant nothing if this cohort, dubbed the country's "Golden Generation", do not win some serious silverware.

The pressure was all on Belgium and in stark contrast, Ireland were relaxed ahead of the match. Manager Martin O'Neill joked about Roy Keane's beard, calling him "the werewolf of Manchester" while the army of Irish fans won over their French hosts with their impromptu singalong sessions and helping to clean up the trash after parties.

Wilmots made brave tactical changes, dropping hard men Marouane Fellaini and Radja Nainggolan and opted for the silky Mousa Dembele and the pacy Yannick Ferreira Carrasco.

There was little wrong with the game plan as Belgium dominated possession and through De Bruyne, created plenty of chances. But what they lacked is the belief to convert those opportunities.

Finally, Lukaku scored a spectacular goal two minutes after the break and confidence suddenly surged through the Red Devils. From that point on, the Irish collapsed as further goals from Witsel and another from Lukaku gave Belgium the win.

MATCH HIGHLIGHTS

- After a goalless first-half where Belgium created chances but were wasteful in front of goal, it all clicked for the Red Devils in the 47th minute when Lukaku curls home after another incisive pass from De Bruyne.

 

- The Irish defence crumbled after the opener and left Witsel totally unmarked in the 61st minute. The midfielder did not hesitate to leap majestically to steer Thomas Meunier's cross past the dive of goalkeeper Darren Randolph.

- Hazard, a passenger during this tournament, finally produced a moment of brilliance. The Red Devils brilliantly turned defence into attack in a split-second as Meunier wins the ball deep in his own half, plays it down the flank and Hazard went on a blistering run, leaving almost the entire Irish defence in his wake before squaring for Lukaku to stroke home the third goal to kill the match.

THE TALKING POINT

Before Lukaku opened the scoring in the 47th minute, Belgium had not scored at the Euros with their previous 91 attempts on goal. They failed to qualify for the tournament since joint-hosting it in 2000. But the country revamped its youth developed, groomed players like De Bruyne and Hazard.

They were brilliant in the qualifiers but once the tournament proper started, they looked disjointed in the 2-0 loss to Italy. They desperately needed a result to show they are worthy of all the hype.

Lukaku's goal seemed to have released them from all the doubt and from that point onwards, the Red Devils played with a swagger and the Irish simply could not live with them.

A very vivid case in point - Belgium strung 28 passes together before Witsel headed home the second goal. Class.

MAN OF THE MATCH

Without a doubt, De Bruyne. He now has had a hand in 10 goals in his last 10 international appearances with five strikes and five assists. When Belgium struggled to break down the spirited Irish defence in the first-half and Hazard gone Awol, it was the Manchester City playmaker who kept up those driving runs and delivering accurate balls to his forwards. If this batch of Belgian players are known as the "Golden Generation", De Bruyne must now be considered one of the leaders of the pack.

WHAT THE RESULT MEANS

Italy has qualified from Group E as winners and will face the Group D runner-up in Paris on June 27. Belgium move from bottom to second in the standings on three points and face Sweden, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, on June 22 in Nice. Ireland can still finish as one of the best third-placed teams if they can somehow beat the Azzurri, who are expected to rest their big guns, in their final match.

KEY STATISTIC

This is Belgium's biggest win in either the World Cup or the Euros, equalling a 3-0 win over El Salvador in 1970 .

WHAT THEY SAID

"We were good in attack and in defence and it was a convincing result. The game against Italy was difficult but today we were ready and played well all across the pitch. It was all positive." - Romelu Lukaku