Sven-Goran Eriksson heaped praise on "perfectionist" Roberto Mancini as the Italy head coach continues to oversee the stunning transformation of the Azzurri at Euro 2020.

Italy will face Belgium in the quarter-finals on Friday after setting a new national record by extending their unbeaten streak to 31 games thanks to a last-16 triumph over Austria.

A proud football country but a national team on their knees after failing to qualify for Russia 2018, their first World Cup absence since 1958, Mancini is the mastermind behind a drastic recovery following his appointment more than three years ago.

Banishing the nightmares of Gian Piero Ventura's dismal tenure, Italy have only conceded more than once in one of their past 18 matches at major tournaments, dating back to the beginning of Euro 2012.

They have conceded just 13 goals across these matches (eight clean sheets) with the only game where they did concede more than once coming in the 2012 European Championship final against Spain (a 4-0 defeat).

As a whole country unites behind 1968 European champions Italy, former Roma, Sampdoria, Lazio, England and Manchester City boss Eriksson hailed Mancini.

"Italy are playing very, very well," Eriksson, who coached Mancini at Sampdoria and Lazio in Serie A, told Stats Perform. "In the first two, or the first three games, they were the team that played the best football of all. Why? I don't know. However, they have many good players without any doubt, playing in top clubs, important ones.

"And then they have Mancini, Roberto. Clearly, he's been a manager for a long time now, he's been in Italy, he's been in England, in Russia I think, in Turkey as well. However, I knew, 25 years ago, that Mancini would have become a great manager. Because I've had him as a player for eight-nine years, and back then he already was like a manager.

 

"He was everything at Sampdoria: warehouse worker, cook, everything. And manager as well. Because he lives for football and it's always been like that for him. He is very curious – 'Why are we doing this during training?', 'Why don't we do this, or that?'. He would always come to me with questions about our training. And he was always talking about football.

"He's doing a great job, I understand it and I am very, very happy for him because he is also, in his job and I think in his life, a perfectionist. There are no half measures with Mancini. He is all or nothing. When he goes to training, he is all. When he changes club, like when he came with me from Sampdoria to Lazio, he was the same at Lazio. He was giving everything, and he wanted to win at any cost. He is a winning mind, a very winning one."

Eriksson added: "He is also a very generous man. For example, he would invite all the players and the whole coaching staff to the restaurant, once a week or every two weeks.

"Fantastic, fish-based, from Genova. And he would always pay, everything. He's a great man. I think very highly of him, and I am happy that he is doing very well."

Italy have reached the quarter-finals of the European Championship for a fourth consecutive tournament. Each of those previous three appearances at this stage have been decided by a penalty shoot-out, with the Italians eliminated by Spain in 2008 and Germany in 2016 while progressing past England in 2012.

Indeed, that accounts for three of a total of five European Championship penalty shoot-outs Italy have participated in – more than any other nation prior to the 2020 edition.

Italy have won all four of their matches at Euro 2020. They have never won five consecutive games at European Championship finals, while only twice previously have they won five or more in a row at any major tournament (World Cup and Euros), winning seven in a row at the World Cup from 1934 to 1938 and five in succession at the World Cup in 1990.

"I don't see a weak spot. Mancini, as perfectionist as he is, always wants to play good football. And maybe this is a weak spot," Eriksson said. "However, it's not actually. I like seeing the football played by Italy, because they attack, they play the ball pushing forward, they don't play like tic-tac, tic-tac. They get the ball, they steal the ball and then go. They lose the ball, they fall back, they defend, aggressive. This is a kind of football that is very nice to see.

"It's clear that Barcelona, Spain, play good football. However, I don't like it that much, because there are a thousand passes before they decide to attack for real. I know that Mancini is not like that. Mancini wants to attack. I hope that this style gets to the end."

Roberto Martinez will decide on Friday whether Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard will play any part in Belgium's Euro 2020 quarter-final tie with Italy.

De Bruyne was forced off early in the second half of Sunday's 1-0 last-16 win over Portugal with an ankle problem, while Hazard damaged his hamstring later in the same game.

Both players have travelled to Munich for Friday's showdown with Italy, though neither took part in Belgium's final training session ahead of the match.

Martinez admitted on Monday it was unlikely either De Bruyne or Hazard would be fully recovered in time, and the Spaniard still remains unsure if either player will make the squad.

"As you know they have not been able to train today," he said at Thursday's pre-match news conference. 

"There is still another 24 hours to go and they are positive they can recover. It is now a race against time to make a decision.

"We won't make a decision until the last minute. At the moment it's impossible to say whether they will get fit."

Asked if he is playing mind games by making Italy guess as to the pair's availability, Martinez said: "We are trying to get them fit. It has nothing to do with games or arrogance.

"We are in tournament mode. If they are not available tomorrow, we hope to have them available later."

Injury-plagued forward Hazard has struggled for fitness over the past couple of seasons and Martinez appeared to suggest the Real Madrid man has less of a chance of being fit.

"For Eden, it's difficult as it's a muscle injury," he said. "For Kevin, it's another type of injury. It's a decision for the medical staff. We will then make a decision when we hear back."

 

The winners of Friday's match at the Allianz Arena will face either Switzerland or Spain for a place in the final.

Italy needed extra time to overcome Austria in the last round, with that 2-1 victory extending the Azzurri's unbeaten run to a new national record of 31 matches.

Roberto Mancini's side have conceded more than once in only one of their last 18 games at major tournaments, conceding just 13 times in total across that sequence.

Martinez got the better of Mancini in the 2013 FA Cup final, with Wigan Athletic stunning Manchester City, but the Spaniard is full of praise for what his opposite number has achieved.

"Italy are a great team," he said. "They press with many players and are very dynamic, with many players able to counter-attack.

"If I have to mention one quality in particular it is the synchrony. That is credit to Mancini and that is why they are unbeaten for so long.

"Italy and Belgium are statistically the best teams in the European Championship, and the teams that have won the most games since qualifying.

"It's a pity we're meeting them already, just like we faced Portugal too early."

Against no side have Belgium played more games at major tournaments without winning than Italy (four, level with France and Germany).

The only European nations Italy have faced more often at the same tournaments without losing, meanwhile, are Germany (nine) and Austria (five).

However, the Red Devils have won seven of their last eight matches at the European Championships – the exception being a 3-1 loss to Wales in the 2016 quarter-finals.

Italy head coach Roberto Mancini hopes Belgium duo Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard will feature in Friday's Euro 2020 quarter-final clash despite Red Devils boss Roberto Martinez suggesting they will not be fit. 

De Bruyne was forced off early in the second half during his side's 1-0 win over Portugal on Sunday.

The Manchester City midfielder was seen with ice on his left ankle while watching on from the sideline, where he was later joined by Hazard after the Real Madrid winger damaged his hamstring late in proceedings.

Martinez revealed on the eve of the game – the first ever between Italy and Belgium in a knockout tie at a major tournament – that it is "impossible" to predict whether the pair will be available to play a part in Munich.

Mancini, however, said the best players deserve to play in the biggest games and would have no issues should they recover in time. 

"It's always nice for the fans to see all the best players on the pitch; that's what makes football special," he told a media conference.

"We face the best team in Europe along with France, maybe the best in the world. They are on top of the ranking, but we'll try to win. 

"I respect Belgium, but we'll need to play as we know, we are aware of our qualities. Belgium are preparing for an important game and the same goes for us."

 

So impressive in the group stage, the Azzurri had to be patient before landing the decisive blows against Austria in a last-16 clash at Wembley that went to extra time.

Mancini's side prevailed 2-1 in the end, setting a new national record in the process as they extended their unbeaten run to 31 games.

"We knew Austria could create trouble for us and we knew it could have been the most difficult game because it was the first one in the knockout phase," Mancini explained.

"Every game can make you stronger if you improve. We suffered against Austria, but we had 27 shots. It was a tough game, but we deserved to win. There are no easy games, that's what the Euros are teaching us."

This is Italy's fourth consecutive appearance in the quarter-final stage of the European Championship.

Each of those previous three appearances have been decided by a penalty shootout, with the Italians eliminated by Spain in 2008 and Germany in 2016 while progressing past England in 2012.

Indeed, that accounts for three of Italy's five European Championship penalty shootouts – more than any other nation prior to the 2020 edition.

Italy and Belgium will meet in a knockout tie for the first time at a major tournament on Friday, with two European heavyweights ready to fight it out for a semi-final spot at Euro 2020.

So impressive in the group stage, the Azzurri had to be patient before landing the decisive blows against Austria in a last-16 clash at Wembley that went to extra time.

Roberto Mancini's side prevailed 2-1 in the end, setting a new national record in the process as they extended their unbeaten run to 31 games.

That streak now faces a serious test against Belgium, who knocked out reigning champions Portugal in the previous round. Victory did come at a cost, however, as both Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard suffered injuries in the 1-0 result.

While the Italy game may come too soon for the pair, Roberto Martinez retains hope they will be able to feature again, provided, of course, their team-mates find a way to get past Italy.

"I think they are the team that have played the best games," Belgium forward Dries Mertens – who plays his club football for Napoli in Serie A – said ahead of the fixture against some familiar faces.

"For sure the first three games they played very good football and they were very combative, it was beautiful to see them play."

Italy have reached the quarter-final stage for a fourth consecutive edition, and each of those previous three last-eight appearances at European Championships have been decided by a penalty shoot-out.

Considering the respective form of both nations – Belgium have won seven of their previous eight outings, going back to Euro 2016 – it would be no surprise to see the eye-catching battle go the distance in Munich.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Belgium - Thorgan Hazard

There will still be a need for Italy to be on Hazard watch at the Allianz Arena: Thorgan – younger brother of the injured Eden – has been directly involved in six goals in his past seven starts for his country (four goals, two assists) and has scored in his previous two appearances at Euro 2020.

The Borussia Dortmund man could become just the second player for Belgium to score in three consecutive major tournament appearances, matching the feat of Marc Wilmots at the 2002 World Cup.

Italy - Matteo Pessina

Atalanta midfielder Pessina has scored in successive games, but no player has ever managed to do so for three in a row when representing Italy at a European Championship campaign.

Christian Vieri has done so at a World Cup previously, enjoying a four-game scoring streak at the 1998 edition. Italy exited at the quarter-final stage on penalties that year to eventual winners France.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Against no side have Belgium played more games at major tournaments without winning than Italy (4, level with France and Germany). The only European nations Italy have faced more often without losing are Germany (9) and Austria (5).

- Italy have only conceded more than once in one of their past 18 matches at major tournaments, dating back to the beginning of Euro 2012. They have conceded just 13 goals across these matches (eight clean sheets) with the only game where they did concede more than once coming in the 2012 European Championship final against Spain (a 4-0 defeat).

- Belgium have won seven of their last eight matches at European Championships – the exception in this run was at the quarter-final stage of Euro 2016, when they lost 3-1 to Wales.

- Italy have never won five consecutive games at a European Championship, while only twice previously have they won five or more in a row at any major tournament. They managed seven in succession at the World Cup from 1934 to 1938, then five on the bounce at the 1990 edition.

- Belgium eliminated reigning champions Portugal in the round of 16 – four of the five nations to win a knockout stage tie (including finals) against the reigning European champions have gone on to win the trophy, with the exception being Italy at Euro 2016.

- Since Roberto Martinez's first game in charge in September 2016, Belgium have won more games (47) and scored more goals (175) than any other European nation in all competitions.

Youri Tielemans has identified what makes absent Belgium teammate Kevin De Bruyne such a "special player" ahead of their Euro 2020 quarterfinal against Italy on Friday.

Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez declared that Manchester City midfielder De Bruyne will miss the quarter after sustaining an ankle knock in their last-16 win over Portugal. De Bruyne was also absent from training on Wednesday.

De Bruyne, who missed Belgium's opening 3-0 win over Russia with a facial injury, has scored one goal and provided two assists during Euro 2020, helping the Red Devils win all four games, meaning Martinez has a difficult job replacing him.

"Kevin is a special player because in my opinion, he always makes the right decision, even if you think he misplaces a pass, it’s not," Tielemans said during a news conference ahead of the quarterfinals.

"Always does something in his mind, always makes the right decision, very efficient, has a lot of assists or goals, that helps our team a lot."

He added: "As a team we have to create more options on the ball, move more, and make the right choices.

"Maybe we were under pressure a little bit, second half against Portugal, they had a lot of offensive options on the pitch, made it difficult for us to get out of there, as a team we have to find those solutions."

De Bruyne was replaced early in the second half against Portugal due to injury, before Belgium survived a barrage of pressure, with the 2016 European champions ending with 23-6 shots.

Belgium, who finished third at the 2018 World Cup and lost in the quarters at the 2016 Euros, ground out the win in a sign of maturity according to Tielemans.

"We learnt lessons from 2018, we’re more realistic, we play nice football, certain matches we have a lot of possession, create chances," the Leicester City midfielder said.

"Like you saw against Portugal there’s moments you have to suffer as a team, you might not get many opportunities, you have to score them, that’s where we learned from Russia, to be efficient, decisive in the right moment, when we have an opportunity to score we remember that from 2018."

Forward Dries Mertens is one candidate to come into the Belgium XI to replace De Bruyne against Italy, having replaced him against Portugal.

Mertens plays his club football with Napoli in Serie A, and added that quarterfinal opponents Italy appeared full of confidence.

"I’ve seen they have a lot more confidence now, they’ve played many matches and won a lot without giving goals away," he said.

"It gives confidence, experienced players but also young players, the way they celebrate when they win, many people didn’t expect that, it gives them a lot of confidence."

The 34-year-old also added there was no thought about Euro 2020 being his or this generation of Belgian players' last chance to win a trophy.

"No, not really," he said. "We do need to be realistic, realise we’re here now, we have a chance, you don’t get chances with a national team to win, every two years you have one chance to win one trophy, its very little.

"We’ve been doing well for a few years now, this is a chance we need to take, we have great facilities, we have great staff, people who know where we want to go.

"Those are important moments, I believe in the future of the Belgium team. This is a chance we have to take."

Antonio Conte says Italy must be wary of "force of nature" Romelu Lukaku but is backing Roberto Mancini to mastermind a Euro 2020 victory over Belgium.

The Azzurri reached the quarter-finals by extending their unbeaten run to a national record 31 matches with a tense 2-1 victory over Austria after extra time at Wembley.

Belgium dethroned holders Portugal to set up a showdown with Italy in Munich on Friday, Thorgan Hazard scoring the only goal.

Mancini's side have won 12 consecutive matches, while the Red Devils have gone 13 without defeat ahead of a blockbuster battle in Bavaria.

Conte believes Italy must find a way to keep Lukaku quiet, with the striker having fired Conte's Inter side to Serie A glory with 24 goals last season and struck three times in four Euro 2020 games.

But the former Italy boss thinks the Azzurri can delivier a knockout blow to Belgium, who have injury concerns over midfield maestro Kevin De Bruyne and captain Eden Hazard.

Conte, who left Inter at the end of the 2020-21 season, told the Gazzetta dello Sport: "As well as the psychological aspect and the attitude: that indispensable mix of grit, concentration, desire to help, the ability to suffer and not give up.

"Each player must put themselves at the service of the group. There are three qualities that differentiate top athletes from normal athletes in modern football: strength, speed and endurance.

"I'm not even talking about the technical qualities that I take for granted. To all this, which is the basis for achieving important results, our national team has shown that it knows how to add its own expression and an idea of ​​the game that other teams have shown less, relying more on important individuals, capable of deciding a game on their own or almost. 

"This is what I have also seen some great national teams do, given as favourites. Our next opponent Belgium is a strong team individually and collectively.

"Lukaku is a force of nature, he works alone, but I discover hot water in saying that the presence or absence of De Bruyne and Hazard on Friday can change the balance.

 

"I have a lot of respect for the coach [Roberto] Martinez for the work he has done in recent ears, but the performance against Portugal did not fully convince me both in the attacking phase and in the defensive phase.

"But Mancini does not need advice, on a tactical level the Italian technicians know how to prepare the game like few others, Roberto [Mancini] will field a team that will be able to manage every situation."

Roberto Martinez has confirmed injured Belgium duo Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard will not be fully fit for the Euro 2020 quarter-final against Italy.

De Bruyne was forced off early in the second half during his side's 1-0 win over Portugal on Sunday, a result that saw the reigning European champions knocked out at the last-16 stage.

The Manchester City midfielder was seen with ice on his left ankle while watching on from the sideline, where he was later joined by Hazard after the Real Madrid winger damaged his hamstring late in proceedings.

Martinez is preparing to be without the pair when the Red Devils take on the Azzurri in Munich on Friday, though remains hopeful they can feature if Belgium progress to the last four.

 

"The initial information that we have from medical staff is positive for both, they will remain with the squad and they have no structural damage," Martinez told the media on Monday.

"But we are up against time and it is very difficult to see them fully fit. We have to take it day by day to try and get them fit.

"We were all a bit concerned before we got the news from the scans and it was a relief to all that we can now work on trying to get them fit again."

Eden's brother Thorgan Hazard scored the only goal of the game against Portugal, sending Belgium through to the last eight for a second successive European Championship.

They lost at the same stage of the previous edition, however, going out to Wales in 2016.

Cristiano Ronaldo has insisted dethroned European champions Portugal will return stronger following their defeat to Belgium.

Portugal's title defence was ended by a Thorgan Hazard strike on Sunday as Fernando Santos' side fell to a 1-0 loss in the last-16 tie. 

The Selecao won just one of their four Euro 2020 matches, which is their fewest in a single European Championship tournament since their first appearance in 1984 (also one win).

The 23 shots recorded by Portugal against Belgium is the highest tally for a team at Euro 2020 without scoring, with Ronaldo responsible for four of those attempts.

Despite his side's disappointing exit in the first knockout round, Juventus star Ronaldo is proud of his team-mates and is predicting a bright future for the Euro 2016 and Nations League 2019 winners.

"We didn't get the result we wanted and we left the race sooner than we wanted," he posted on his official Instagram page. 

"But we are proud of our journey. We gave everything to renew the title of European Champions and this group proved that it can still give much joy to the Portuguese.

"Our fans were tireless in supporting the team from start to finish. We ran and fought for them, in order to live up to the trust they placed in us. 

"It was not possible to get where we all wanted, but here is our sincere and profound thanks.

"Congratulations to Belgium and good luck to all the teams that remain in the competition. As for us, we will come back stronger."

 

Portugal's exit means Ronaldo will have to wait at least another three months before he can surpass Ali Daei as the outright top international goalscorer of all time.

However, the Juve forward's five goals – coming from 15 shots – could yet see him end as the top scorer at Euro 2020.

Santos' side are back in action in September with a World Cup qualifier against the Republic of Ireland, while Belgium will face Italy on Friday for a Euro 2020 semi-final spot.

Eden Hazard fears he suffered a serious hamstring injury after Belgium eliminated defending champions Portugal in the Euro 2020 last 16 as Roberto Martinez also awaits news on star Kevin De Bruyne.

Belgium ousted Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal 1-0 en route to the quarter-finals on Sunday but it may have come at a cost, with Hazard and De Bruyne both hobbling off in Seville.

Thorgan Hazard's stunning long-range strike set up a showdown with in-form Italy, however, it was overshadowed by brother Eden Hazard, who clutched his hamstring as he left the field late in the match after De Bruyne succumbed to an ankle problem early in the second half.

Afterwards, Eden Hazard – who has been hampered by injuries since joining Real Madrid in 2019 – told reporters: "I hurt myself, I felt something in the hamstring.

I think I have something, we'll see tomorrow. We will analyse the injury well, we will see the extent afterwards.

"As captain, I will stay with the group because I have an important role to play."

Thorgan Hazard said: "I hope it's not a big injury but it doesn't look so good. The medical staff in Belgium is very good so we hope everything will be ok for the rest of the tournament. Also for Kevin because we need these two players to go forward."

Joao Palhinha's challenge on De Bruyne in the 45th minute saw the Belgium star substituted shortly after the restart, as head coach Martinez added: "We will take 48 hours now to assess the situation of the two players.

"We go back to Belgium now and they will have scans on the injuries tomorrow.

"It's too early to say how they are doing. With Kevin, it's the ankle -- he couldn't really turn in the second half. With Eden it's the muscle, but we have to wait for a diagnosis."

Belgium claimed their first win over Portugal since September 1989 (3-0 in a World Cup qualifier) – ending a run of five meetings without a victory against them (D2 L3).

The Red Devils also equalled their longest winning streak at major tournaments, winning five in a row for the second time (both under Martinez). Belgium have won 10 of their 11 games across the World Cup and European Championships since the Spaniard took charge.

"We had incredible concentration and defended really well," said Martinez. "We scored a very good goal. In the second half the more the momentum went to Portugal we had to show an incredible mentality. Everything was about being disciplined and tactically astute.

"We never lost concentration and there were difficult moments. The way Portugal pushed for victory until the end, this gives me incredible satisfaction.

"This is what a winning team needs. We know the talent we have but all the other elements you need were shown today. For us it was the biggest test there is."

Belgium have scored six goals from outside the box in the last two European Championships (2016 and 2020); at least twice as many as any other team in this period.

Thorgan Hazard was the fifth different Belgian player to score from outside the box in the competition since 2016, along with Radja Nainggolan (two), De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard.

Belgium's Thorgan Hazard netted in consecutive games for the country for the first time, while he has now scored four international goals since his brother Eden last scored for the national team.

"I think the trajectory was a little bit weird for the goalkeeper," Thorgan Hazard said after his goal was compared to Ronaldo. "I tried my luck.

"In these matches, if you have an opportunity or you have a chance, you always have to try and with a little bit of luck, it went it. Especially as this was a qualifying goal so it’s a dream." 

Fernando Santos could not question Portugal's effort as he revealed some players were in tears after losing to Belgium at Euro 2020.

Portugal were reigning European champions having stunned France in Euro 2016 and an exciting squad hinted at another challenge over the coming weeks.

But a draw with France in their final Group F match saw Santos' side condemned to a last-16 clash with the world's top-ranked team.

Thorgan Hazard was the matchwinner for Belgium, his spectacular strike enough for a 1-0 success – their first against Portugal since 1989.

This was despite Portugal attempting 23 shots – worth 1.7 expected goals (xG) – to the Red Devils' six (0.2 xG).

"We are disappointed and sad," Santos told TVI24. "I've got some players crying in the dressing room. They gave everything.

 

"A defeat is a defeat. I honestly don't have many words to say right now. We all wanted it and we believed in it.

"We had confidence and we were convinced that we could reach the final and win. There is no justice or injustice, we conceded a goal and we could not score."

The coach added: "The players did everything. They gave them what they had and there's nothing to point to them.

"They were tired but found energy to overcome the gap in rest between the teams. But that's no good now, it's just talk."

Joao Palhinha made his first senior international start in the middle of midfield, completing 94.6 per cent of his passes and making a game-high six tackles.

"We have to raise our heads, see what we can improve," he told RTP. "Obviously this does not represent the value of this team.

"We really missed the lucky moment, that was the definition of this game. It is with great misfortune that we leave here with this result."

Belgium and the Czech Republic booked their spots in the last eight of Euro 2020 on Sunday. 

The Red Devils' starting XI against Portugal had an average age of 30 years and 148 days – the oldest named by any of the remaining teams in the competition – and that experience seemingly paid off as they produced a stubborn display to edge past Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. 1-0. 

In the other game, the Czech Republic took full advantage of Matthijs de Ligt's red card early in the second half to seal a shock 2-0 win over the Netherlands. 

Stats Perform looks at the best stats from another absorbing day of action in Euro 2020.

Belgium 1-0 Portugal: Hazard strike seals Red Devils' progress

The Red Devils booked their place in the last eight with their first victory over Portugal since September 1989 (3-0 in a World Cup qualifier), ending a run of five meetings without a win against them.

The winning goal came from Thorgan Hazard in the first half, the Borussia Dortmund man scoring in consecutive games for his country for the first time.

He has also now scored four international goals since his brother, Eden, last scored for the national team, highlighting the older sibling's recent difficulties.

That goal ensured Roberto Martinez's side equalled their longest winning streak at major tournaments, sealing five victories in a row for the second time. Indeed, the Red Devils have won 10 of their 11 games across the World Cup and European Championship since Martinez took charge.

Portugal, meanwhile, will go away and lick their wounds after being eliminated with just one victory from their four games (D1 L2), their fewest in a single European Championship since their first appearance in 1984, when they also won one of four (D2 L1).

It should perhaps come as little surprise they were unable to bounce back from Hazard's goal. Since Euro 2004, they have only fought back to win in one of their 10 games in the competition when they have conceded the opening goal (D3 L6).

Netherlands 0-2 Czech Republic: De Ligt's dismissal proves costly

Frank de Boer's men became the first side to win 100 per cent of their group stage games before losing in 90 minutes in the first knockout round at a European Championship.

They can scarcely have any complaints either, given they failed to have a single shot on target in a European Championship and World Cup game for the first time since Opta records begin (1980). 

Their hopes suffered a blow in the 55th minute when De Ligt became the first player to be sent off at the European Championship for the Netherlands since John Heitinga in 2004 (also versus the Czech Republic). De Ligt (21y 319d) is now the fourth-youngest player to receive a red card in the tournament.

 

The Czech Republic took full advantage of his dismissal, winning their first game in the knockout stages of a major competition since Euro 2004 thanks to goals from Tomas Holes and Patrik Schick. 

Holes became the first Czech player to both score and assist in a single match at the European Championship since Jan Koller and Milan Baros also did so against the Netherlands at Euro 2004.

Schick's goal, meanwhile, was his fourth in four games at Euro 2020, with only Baros (five) now having scored more major tournament goals for the Czech Republic.

For years, Belgium's 'golden generation' has promised much but never quite lived up to its potential – in arguably their last opportunity for success, they are primed to give it all they have.

The one area of Roberto Martinez's team that would cause most supporters concern would be their aging backline, but in the face of sheer desperation and an attack brimming with quality, they stood firm in Seville to see off Cristiano Ronaldo and defending European champions Portugal 1-0 on Sunday.

It was a performance that brought further credence to the growing idea that pragmatism rules on the international stage, with Belgium making the most of a wonderstrike and then offering little threat themselves at the other end.

A gauntlet was laid down to Portugal and, despite boasting a squad far superior to the one they possessed five years ago, Fernando Santos was seemingly unable to harness that greater collective talent.

That's not to say Portugal have been great entertainers since winning Euro 2016. No, in fact pragmatism and even dull football have almost been a staple under Santos, and this was very much the case during the opening 45 minutes in Seville, with Belgium's difficulty in breaking down a typically rigid defence notable.

Though Romelu Lukaku's efforts at least kept the Portugal backline busy.

The occasion was perhaps understandably billed as Lukaku v Cristiano Ronaldo, though it was hardly a shootout between the pair as some might've hoped.

Instead, they were forced to graft in what was something of a slog, and that suited Lukaku a little more than it did record-chasing Ronaldo.

 

The Inter star was first a nuisance in the 10th minute as he brilliantly used his frame to block Ruben Dias and tee up Eden Hazard on the edge of the box, though his subsequent shot was sliced horribly high.

Later, in a move that highlighted his flexibility as much as his raw power, Lukaku surged through the middle as he led a break, impressively holding off Joao Palhinha, who desperately tried to foul him. Fortunately for Portugal, Lukaku's eventual pass was cut out and referee Felix Brych bizarrely opted against bringing the play back when Belgium failed to take full advantage.

But soon after, Lukaku's somewhat under-appreciated role took centre-stage once more, as he again bullied Dias on the edge of Portugal's box to sustain an attack, and just a few seconds later it was 1-0.

Thorgan Hazard, for much of his career often seen simply as "Eden's brother", took the game by the scruff of the neck, as he blasted past Rui Patricio from 25 yards.

That put him ahead of Eden for total Euros goals, his two coming in just three appearances. The older brother has one in nine games.

It was a moment of beauty somewhat out of keeping from the rest of a first half in which the majority of the highlights revolved around displays of physicality.

The goal arriving so close to half-time at least allowed Portugal a chance to regroup and potentially alter their system to be more aggressive in attack, which, in fairness, they were as Santos' men managed 15 shots compared to eight in the first period.

Portugal were on the front foot for most of the second half, their first proper chance coming shortly after a couple of attack-minded substitutions – Ronaldo did well on the right, drifting in and finding Diogo Jota in the box, only for him to blaze over.

The Selecao really upped the ante in the final 15 minutes, purely out of desperation.

Dias saw a goal-bound headed pushed away by Thibaut Courtois, before Raphael Guerreiro linked up with Ronaldo and saw a right-footed effort come back off the post.

At the other end Lukaku continued to be a vital outlet for Belgium. While chances were difficult to come by, his lung-busting runs relieved the pressure on several occasions, buying the Red Devils a little extra time.

But for all of Portugal's incessant pressure, keeping alive their dream of retaining the crown wasn't to be.

It wasn't a wasted couple of weeks for Ronaldo at least, the all-time great taking several more records.

He leaves Euro 2020 as the top-scorer in European Championship history with 14 goals and the top-scoring European player at major international tournaments with 21.

But the last one, the biggest record of them all is out of reach for the time being, with Ronaldo left tied on 109 international goals with Ali Daei.

While Lukaku still has some way to go to matching the exploits of his Serie A rival, Rom v Ron went the Belgian's way, and if he continues to produce similarly selfless displays over the next couple of weeks, he could well inspire the 'golden generation' to their defining achievement.

Belgium ended Portugal's European Championship defence with a 1-0 win in Seville, despite losing Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard to injuries in the last-16 clash.

With both sides facing a daunting route to Euro 2020 glory, it was Belgium who emerged to reach a quarter-final tie against in-form Italy thanks to Thorgan Hazard's long-range strike.

It was a goal that deserved to settle a game of few chances, although De Bruyne's substitution early in the second half will concern Roberto Martinez, as will Eden Hazard’s departure late in the match.

Portugal could not capitalise and paid the price for a third-placed Group F finish that condemned them to this side of the draw.

At odds with a tense finale, opportunities were few and far between prior to Belgium's spectacular 42nd-minute opener.

Portugal's Diogo Jota dragged wide and Thibaut Courtois parried a Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick – his first sight at a record-breaking 110th international goal – before Thorgan Hazard blasted beyond Rui Patricio from 25 yards, the ball fading away from a flailing goalkeeper.
 
Joao Palhinha's challenge on De Bruyne in the 45th minute saw the Belgium midfielder substituted shortly after the restart, but Portugal did not respond until the introduction of Bruno Fernandes and tournament debutant Joao Felix.

Ronaldo teed up Jota to flash a strike over and Joao Felix got up to meet Renato Sanches' cross, only to head into Courtois' arms.

An ill-tempered affair threatened to tick by without Portugal seriously threatening an equaliser, but Ruben Dias headed straight at Courtois and Raphael Guerreiro struck the post, agonisingly close to forcing extra time.

 

What does it mean? Belgium win but lose star power

Belgium showed little besides the moment of magic from Hazard, an unlikely hero alongside De Bruyne, brother Eden and Romelu Lukaku. It proved enough on this occasion.

But when facing Italy next, Martinez will hope to have De Bruyne and Eden Hazard available to make their own special contribution to the knockout rounds.

De Bruyne has created a tournament-high 10 chances in just 134 minutes, while Eden Hazard contested 19 duels and won four fouls in this match, providing a vital outlet for his side.

Hero Hazard helps out

Thorgan Hazard's hit was one to remember, but he also played a key role in protecting Belgium's narrow lead.

The wing-back made five tackles, three clearances and also an interception when playing behind Eden.

No new Ronaldo record

It is surely a case of when not if Ronaldo reaches that magical number of 110, pulling clear of Iran great Ali Daei, but this was not his night.

Although five goals may still be enough to earn the Golden Boot, the forward scarcely looked like adding to that tally. He had four attempts but his best was a long-range free-kick.

What's next?

Belgium head to Munich on Friday to face Italy, with Ronaldo and Portugal watching on from home.

Kevin De Bruyne exited Belgium's Euro 2020 last-16 clash with Portugal due to injury on Sunday.

The Manchester City midfielder's involvement in the Euros was delayed due to facial fractures sustained in the Champions League final.

De Bruyne had subsequently starred as Belgium eased through the group stage, however, assisting one and scoring another in a comeback win over Denmark, before laying on a further assist against Finland.

But he lasted just 48 minutes of the knockout game against Portugal in Seville.

Joao Palhinha had been booked just before half-time for a challenge on De Bruyne from behind, and the felled star soon found he could not continue in the second period.

Red Devils coach Roberto Martinez took no risk, quickly calling Dries Mertens on in De Bruyne's place.

Belgium would have to face in-form Italy if they advance, while world champions France are also in the same half of the draw – two opponents against whom they would not like to be without De Bruyne.

Belgium face holders Portugal in a mouthwatering Euro 2020 last-16 tie on Sunday and their star attacking midfielder is in ominous form.

Kevin De Bruyne began the Red Devils' group campaign on the sidelines as he recovered from facial injuries sustained during Manchester City's Champions League final defeat to Chelsea.

“I don't feel anything on the left side, like after a visit to the dentist," he explained in a typically abrupt fashion.

But since being introduced as a half-time substitute with Belgium 1-0 down to Denmark in Copenhagen, the 29-year-old has unquestionably made his presence felt.

A brilliant assist and thumping winning goal saw the playmaker inspire a 2-1 win almost singlehandedly.

Belgium made it three wins from three thanks to a routine 2-0 triumph over Finland in their final Group B match, with De Bruyne laying on Romelu Lukaku's third goal of the tournament.

Despite only playing 134 minutes at Euro 2020, he has created five chances with an expected assists (xA) value of 1.18.

 

Bruno benched as holders struggle to find their feet

If this is a case of De Bruyne emphatically bringing his Premier League form onto the international stage, the same cannot yet be said of Bruno Fernandes.

Since his Manchester United debut on February 1 last year, Fernandes' 19 assists are the most supplied by any player in England's top fight. De Bruyne, with 17 assists having played 2,904 minutes to the Portugal international's 4,297, is the only other player to have recorded more than 15 over the same period.

The Manchester maestros also close out the top two in terms of chances created (De Bruyne 131, Fernandes 125), big chances created (De Bruyne 31, Fernandes 23) and chances created from open play (99 apiece) in this time.

 

Fernandes was in the starting line-up for Portugal's opener when they left it late to beat Hungary 3-0 in Group F, before being unable to avert a chastening 4-2 loss to Germany in Munich.

The former Sporting CP favourite was one of the victims as Fernando Santos shuffled his pack in response, only coming on as a late substitute in the 2-2 draw against France – his most notable contribution coming when he escaped punishment for an untidy challenge on Kingsley Coman in his own penalty area.

 

KDB running free

De Bruyne and Fernandes' contrasting contributions at Euro 2020 so far can by partly explained by the amount of freedom they are granted by their respective international bosses to recreate their club heroics.

"Kevin will have an influential role, the playmaker, linking possession," Martinez said a couple of days out from the showdown in Seville, with De Bruyne once again poised to leave a stamp on the game irrespective of starting position.

He replaced Dries Mertens against Denmark, nominally roving in the front three, before reverting to a central midfield position alongside Axel Witsel for a man-of-the-match showing versus Finland.

For City, the majority of De Bruyne's Premier League touches last season came in the middle third of the opposition half of the field, with 15.27 per cent in the middle of the left flank.

 

Within the far smaller sample size of his Belgium minutes at Euro 2020, the story is similar enough. Although he does not hit double-digit percentages across the middle attacking third as he does for City, 15.38 per cent of De Bruyne's Red Devils touches are in that favoured position - coming in from the left and able to see the full picture unfolding.

Fernandes' made 14.08 per cent of his United touches in the same area in 2020-21, with a comparable spread across the attacking midfield zones to De Bruyne.

By contrast, for Portugal at Euro 2020, there has been a huge concentration of Fernandes' touches on the right flank - 22.68 per on the right of the middle third of the opposition half, compared to just 4.12 per cent where he does the biggest chunk of his United work.

This suggests far less license to express himself than De Bruyne enjoys under Martinez and the on-field relationship each man has with their team's superstar goalscorer is somewhat wrapped up in all this.

 

KDB and Rom in sync, Bruno struggling to feed Ronaldo

The outcome of Sunday's match could have a huge bearing on the winner of the Golden Boot, although Cristiano Ronaldo's group-stage haul of five means he might have already done enough.

Lukaku is building on a fabulous couple of seasons at Inter and has three for Belgium so far, with the centre-forward seeming to come alive whenever De Bruyne is in close proximity.

A marginal offside call had already thwarted the De Bruyne-Lukaku link before Belgium's number seven and number nine combined to complete the scoring against Finland.

It is not a one-way relationship, either, with Lukaku holding up play expertly for De Bruyne to lay Thomas Meunier's equaliser on a plate in the Denmark match.

 

Of De Bruyne and Lukaku's seven combinations at Euro 2020 – when one of them has passed to the other – six have ended in the opposition penalty area, underling their considerable threat in tandem.

Fernandes and Ronaldo have passed to one another 15 times, but only two of these exchanges have ended in the area and neither yielded a goal.

Their combinations have also been uneven. Fernandes came on in the 72nd minute against France and he and Ronaldo each passed to the other once. They shared three in total despite being on the pitch for 89 minutes together versus Hungary.

Perhaps this speaks of the respective status of the two playmakers with their countries. Fernandes, 26, is in Ronaldo's shadow like the rest of his international team-mates, meaning the cajoling leader on show at Old Trafford is unlikely to be seen to the same extent. Much like his overall presence, his on-field contributions have shrunk.

 

De Bruyne is second to no one in the Belgium set-up, the shining light of a celebrated generation alongside Lukaku and Eden Hazard.

It means that, while they might compete as men of equal status in the next Manchester derby, De Bruyne will be the heartbeat of Belgium's bid for a quarter-final spot as Fernandes seeks to muscle in and make his own talents felt from the margins.

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.