Thorgan Hazard’s streak of light clears path for Belgium’s golden generation

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In a match where quality and caution stifled chaos and opportunity, Thorgan Hazard provided the rare streak of light that will make Belgium’s golden generation gleam with hope. Up until his swerving strike in the second-half, this tactical stalemate between Belgium and Portugal had been suffocating. The defences were well-drilled and resolute, leaving strikers to fend off scraps, and on those rare occasions that a crack emerged, chances were snatched at and miscued into the stands. It has been a common trait of the knockout stages in tournament football, when anxiety so often smothers the action, that opposing forces tend to cancel one another out until a single moment of genius tilts the balance.

That breathtaking moment will live long in Belgian memories. The build-up to this match was dominated by whispers of Eden Hazard finally recapturing the best form that’s so bitterly deserted him. Instead, it was his younger brother who picked up the ball on the edge of the box, sensed the hesitancy in Portugal’s defence and scythed a shot into the roof of the net. Rui Patricio had a clear sight of the ball but was dumbfounded by its vicious curve and could only offer a flapping hand at thin air. In the centre circle, Cristiano Ronaldo shrugged in despair. It was the type of goal he has made famous, but this time ripped the rug from underneath his and the defending champions’ feet.

For a side who’ve promised so much but failed to deliver the trophy so desperately desired, this 1-0 victory will be a source of validation, if not yet a release. Belgium overcame a gauntlet of emotions and uncertainty in the final stages and had to do so without their talisman, Kevin De Bruyne, who limped off with an injury shortly after half time. But a defence who share a combined 100 years between them showed no signs of brittleness, even as Portugal introduced an attacking armoury of ridiculous depth. Portugal would finish with 29 shots to Belgium’s six, but this time Bruno Fernandes could not make the difference. Andre Silva and Joao Felix drew blanks. Ronaldo, who was a peripheral figure for much of the game, was shepherded expertly away from danger by Belgium’s wise old back three. It was Hazard’s wonder that saw Belgium into the quarter-finals, but the fortitude shown as a team promises to carry them further still.

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The question now is whether Roberto Martinez’s side can reward this golden generation with a trophy before age reveals its rusting alloys. They will face Italy in the quarter-finals, who had been the team of the tournament until a shaky victory against Austria. Their energetic attack and equally seasoned defence will interrogate every weakness with a stern microscope.

There were moments here, too, when they were exposed in Seville. Axel Witsel was a towering shield in front of defence, but Portugal’s slight, technical dribblers often found a route to scurry beneath him. For Renato Sanches, there was no such need for patience. Twice in the first half, he parted Belgium’s defence like a sea, barreling through the heart of the pitch and so nearly setting up Bernardo Silva, who was one of several players to spurn gilt-edged opportunities.

But the most nervous examination will come in the medical room in the late hours of tonight when the extent of the injuries suffered by De Bruyne, who never recovered from a raking slide tackle, and Eden Hazard, who clutched at his hamstring, are revealed. Even a squad littered with such talent will struggle to survive without their two talismans who bear such influence, although Romelu Lukaku’s infectious and bullish strength of mind was key to keeping his side on track as tempers flared and apprehension infiltrated Belgium’s tiring legs in the latter stages.

But for now, Belgium can celebrate. If this is being heralded as the last chance for their golden generation, this performance also reflected the talent and resolve that has earned them that reputation. Three imposing hurdles remain but on a night that stagnated under strain and stress, Hazard’s thunderbolt cleared the skies and a path to history.

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