Euro 2016: Enter the Dragons

Belgium goalie Thibaut Courtois conceding the third goal scored by Sam Vokes in Wales' 3-1 quarter-final victory.
Belgium goalie Thibaut Courtois conceding the third goal scored by Sam Vokes in Wales' 3-1 quarter-final victory. PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

Belgium stars fail to show mettle as Wales storm into their first-ever major semi-final

LILLE • Golden generation? On the evidence of an astonishing football game in Lille, that would be Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and the band of brothers who have turned Wales from zeros to heroes.

Just let us declare, here and now, an embargo on that cursed phrase. As Belgium became on Friday the latest team to demonstrate, it can be the kiss of death.

Injured Belgium captain Vincent Kompany had told, before the game, how he and his team-mates - Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and the rest - loathe that phrase, like the Portugal of Luis Figo, Paolo Sousa and Rui Costa in the 1990s and the England of John Terry, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney in the 2000s.

"Nobody asks to be described as that," Kompany said, before, again, watching from the sidelines as his nation's hopes crumbled with a 1-3 loss to Wales in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.

Expectation, it seems, is a burden that few national teams can shoulder. It was a night when Belgium, the world's No. 2 team, were expected to cruise into the semi-finals, given the talent in their ranks.

That certainly seemed to be on the cards when Radja Nainggolan gave them the lead with a stunning strike in the 13th minute.

But, from then on, Marc Wilmots' side were simply outdone by the Welsh Dragons, who proved they were made of far stronger stuff.

Ashley Williams brought the world's 26th-ranked team level before a dazzling strike from Hal Robson-Kanu, and a late header by substitute Sam Vokes wrapped up a historic victory - Wales had reached the semi-finals of a major tournament for the first time.

That was not just a performance of strong hearts and minds. Those were factors, but so were the two men in the respective dugouts.

Chris Coleman has led Wales in extraordinarily impressive style, fashioning a team who are compact when they are defending and extremely quick and incisive when they break on the counter-attack.

Belgium, by contrast, have looked uninspired under Wilmots - some eye-catching square pegs in square holes, but too predictable when their 4-2-3-1 system is not working.

"I think we had a good strategy, and we were playing very well, but then out of nowhere we just dropped back 15 metres," Wilmots said. "I was saying, 'Push out, push out', and I don't really understand why the players didn't do that."

Thibaut Courtois had other ideas. "I think we had the same problems as against Italy," the Belgium goalkeeper said, referring to his team's 2-0 defeat in their opening game. "Same tactics, same problem."

It seems like no coincidence that Belgium's three victories at this tournament came in the matches when, against four-man back lines, Hazard and de Bruyne have found the space and the freedom in which to weave their magic.

Against Wales, as against Italy, they were up against three central defenders, an extremely compact, well-organised defensive unit that left little room to exploit.

Belgium simply could not match Wales for organisation, spirit and sheer resilience.

And like so many other golden generations, the Belgians fell short when it mattered most.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 03, 2016, with the headline 'Enter the Dragons'. Print Edition | Subscribe