Sports

Is Belgium the World’s Best Team or a Flawed Pretender?

The Red Devils have stars. They might not have enough to win the Euros.

Belgium's midfielder Kevin De Bruyne touches his chest.
Belgium midfielder Kevin De Bruyne reacts at the end of the match against Denmark on June 17, 2021. WOLFGANG RATTAY/Getty Images

No team was more deserving of a fairy tale beginning to its second outing at the 2020 European Championships than Denmark.

Playing its first game since star midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed on the field against Finland, Denmark and coach Kasper Hjulmand channeled their overpowering emotions—the despair they felt after seeing their playmaker stricken, and the frustrations over the conclusion of that first match, wherein UEFA forced the team to choose between finishing that night or the next day—into a storming start against the favored Belgian side. In the second minute, Belgium defender Jason Denayer compounded a careless giveaway in front of his own goal by chasing after the ball, leaving forward Yussuf Poulsen free to score the second-fastest goal in the history of the European Championships.

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Denmark should have had more. Two minutes later, Joakim Maehle dribbled past what seemed like half the Belgian defense before drawing a save from keeper Thibaut Courtois. A minute after that, Daniel Wass’ free header fell too close to Courtois. The Belgian squad seemed unwilling to even attempt a tackle; if a passing lane wasn’t readily apparent to the Dane with the ball, he could just wait until a better option appeared because no one was going to challenge him. All this before the two teams stopped play in the 10th minute to pay tribute to Eriksen, who wore No. 10 for Denmark.

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Denmark’s dominance held even when it didn’t have the ball. The Danish press buckled Belgium’s system, folding each attack into another harmless paper swan. In the face of Denmark’s intensity, Belgium’s game plan of retaining possession came off like trying to charm the snake as it’s already constricting around you. If, at halftime, Belgium was still in the game, it was based on its reputation alone.

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In fairness, Belgium’s starting line-up was missing the world’s best attacking midfielder, Kevin De Bruyne, who’s still recovering after having his face broken by Chelsea’s Antonio Rüdiger in the Champions League final. It also lacked Eden Hazard, who two years ago was nearly unstoppable in the Premier League for Chelsea but has suffered an injury-hit slide in form since moving to Real Madrid. The team’s best defensive midfielder, Axel Witsel, has been injured for most of 2021, but is so crucial to his nation’s hopes he was placed on the roster anyway in the hopes that he might make some contribution during the course of the tournament.

All three came on in the second half—De Bruyne at halftime and Witsel and Hazard at the 60-minute mark. In between those substitutions, Belgium equalized, a missed interception on the Danish left giving striker Romelu Lukaku room to go steamrolling toward the Danish goal. He cut back for De Bruyne, who sent two defenders sliding with a single touch before rolling the ball sideways for Eden’s brother Thorgan Hazard to hammer home.

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Then, 10 minutes after Eden came on, he and Thorgan played a pair of one-touch passes at the top of the box that freed De Bruyne to take aim at the winner. He didn’t miss (though he did ask his teammates to refrain from celebrating, presumably out of respect for Eriksen).

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Those are two fantastic goals, almost good enough to make you forgive Belgium for scoring them against Denmark, given the narrative around Eriksen. For the No. 1 team in the FIFA World Rankings, they were some real “now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station” moments.

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But Belgium’s shakiness at the game’s outset shows that this team is still untenably top-heavy, reliant both on its biggest stars and on its attacking players to make up for deficiencies elsewhere. Even with the Belgian stars on the field, Denmark was able to generate chances. Belgium’s aging defenders—Toby Alderweireld is 32, Jan Vertonghen is 35—at times made Denmark’s Martin Braithwaite look like Kylian Mbappé running in behind them. Imagine what will happen when they have to face the actual Mbappé, or any of Italy’s squadron of fleet-footed attackers who have looked so dangerous on the break. Denayer is the youngest member of the Belgian defense, and he stepped in for this game after Dedryck Boyata got the start against Russia. Will his double mistake on Denmark’s opener cost him his starting place, or is he needed to cover for the two players alongside him?

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If Belgium can’t rely on its defense, then the only hope it has of winning this tournament is to keep the ball as much as possible. That will be a lot easier to do if De Bruyne and Hazard are able to go a full 90 minutes by the time the knockout round begins. If not, then it will have to get more out of its fit attacking stars. Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco are good players who played poorly against Denmark, but the lion’s share of that burden will fall on center forward Lukaku.

Lukaku was the most valuable player in Italy’s Serie A this season, finishing second in the league in goals and second in assists as he led Inter Milan—where he is teammates with Eriksen—to its first title in a decade. He scored twice against Russia and was integral in both the Belgian goals against Denmark. He is an exciting player to watch, clever in his passing, dribbling like a tight end attempting to tap dance when he has to navigate through tight spaces, and it would be thrilling to see him taking on the challenge of dragging his injury-bitten team through the tournament. But though Belgium’s most dangerous first half moments still came through him, the stark difference in the quality of chances once the second half commenced showed how much he can still benefit from having the help of De Bruyne and Hazard.

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As for Denmark, it still stands a decent chance of advancing to the next round, despite two losses in two games. If it beats Russia and Belgium beats Finland, neither an unlikely result, then it will have already made up the goal differential separating it from the other two teams that will finish the group stage with just one win. If either of those wins happens by more than one goal, it should have the advantage without going to the more obscure tiebreakers or relying on the shifting goalposts of third-place qualification. If it can make it out of the group stages, and if it can match the intensity it brought to the match against Belgium, then Denmark’s tournament could have a fairy tale ending as well.

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