Belgium's swagger is back, says Richard Buxton
Wilmots' men now have a swagger, and a less daunting route to final
(Radja Nainggolan 84)
Belgium could not have asked for an easier passage to the Euro 2016 final.
A Round of 16 stage bracketed into the haves and have-nots of offers Marc Wilmots' side the greatest gift of all with a virtual bye.
On one side are a litany of World Cup and European champions; the other, a line-up of relative minnows and underdogs which has transformed the talented Belgians from tournament darkhorses to favourites.
Such serendipity mirrored the belated ascent of the Red Devils on the back of a chastening opening Group E defeat by Italy.
Aided by fortune, their Golden Generation finally looks set to live up to its highly-anticipated potential.
Confidence is brimming on the back of successive victories that have firmly catapulted both Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne back into the spotlight.
Neither found themselves among the goals during a vital 1-0 win over Sweden yesterday morning (Singapore time), but their intent and influence, both from positions of adversity, cannot be understated.
Returning from an injury lay-off, de Bruyne had struggled to launch ahead of Euro 2016 but appeared reborn with a dominant performance at the Stade de Nice.
As Zlatan Ibrahimovic called time on an illustrious international career without so much as a whimper, Manchester City's wing wizard showed why the future belongs to him.
He shifted to a more central position to drive on wave after wave of Belgian attacks in a display as superlative-inducing as the Sweden captain's previous, fleeting moments of brilliance.
Clearing a goal-bound header off the line mere minutes before Radja Nainggolan's winning strike, he checkmated his elder adversary, unsuccessfully seeing one final and glorious hurrah, at every turn.
Lukaku, too, has enjoyed a renaissance that belied his previous inability to record a goal in 11 competitive games for both club and country.
Far too often, the Everton striker was guilty of talking up his prospects instead of letting his feet do it for him. That fixation with securing a move to pastures new and the lure of Champions League football did more harm than good.
But an emphatic two-goal response against Ireland last Saturday has now been supplemented by the re-emergence of a player who will again be regarded as one of Europe's most menacing marksmen.
Others who once allowed themselves to become preoccupied are also finding their way back into old habits for Belgium.
Eden Hazard appears to have again found his comfort zone after a season where he stole focus for all the wrong reasons.
Something appears to have finally clicked for the Chelsea playmaker, who has rediscovered a purpose that would eventually yield a goal, albeit by Radja Nainggolan's thunderous boot rather than Hazard's own.
That is the beauty of the current Belgium. Unlike other teams at the Finals' knockout stage, such as a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal and a Poland geared towards Robert Lewandowski, they have no solitary driving force; there are many.
Wilmots boasts a squad capable of defying the doubters that said they were incapable of reaching the final; a sneer which also spurred on Portugal at Euro 2004, after slipping to an opening defeat to their eventual conquerors, Greece.
With holders Spain, world champions Germany and hosts France among a list of potential banana skins successfully avoided after Uefa's oblique structuring of the kockout rounds, Belgium have never had it so good.
Suddenly, surpassing their countrymen, the team that lost the 1980 final to West Germany (2-1), does not seem quite so unattainable.
ACES UP THE BELGIAN SLEEVES:
KEVIN DE BRUYNE (above)
ROMELU LUKAKU (above)
Hungary will be tough. We saw the last minutes of their game against Portugal. They give 200 per cent and have very good players.
— Belgium’s forward Eden Hazard (above)
WILMOTS: Don't try and play with us
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots, in typically self-confident mood, warned that any opponents who opened up against his team would be punished, after their 1-0 win against Sweden (yesterday morning, Singapore time).
Wilmots (above, right) was heavily criticised after Belgium, boasting several of the most gifted players in the tournament, began with a 2-0 defeat by Italy, but his side have bounced back to beat Ireland and Sweden to finish second in Group E.
The win, thanks to Radja Nainggolan's majestic late strike, earned Belgium a place in the last 16, where they will face Hungary.
After the warning to opponents, Wilmots said: "Six points from nine are very good and since the defeat by Italy we have got better, we've kept two clean sheets in a row.
"People thought we were dead after the first game but we are back on track and we have come through a very difficult group."
Belgium's players, though, were more cautious.
"Hungary will be tough. We saw the last minutes of their game against Portugal," said star forward Eden Hazard.
"They give 200 per cent and have very good players. We need another good performance to qualify for the quarter-finals."
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois agreed that Hungary, initially seen as outsiders to reach the knockout stage, would be hard work.
"The last 16 is really open. But they're all difficult countries to beat. We cannot think that it (Hungary) will be an easy match," he said.
"We have to admit that we have an 'easy' half of the draw because obviously all the teams that are there deserve it but there are no big teams like Spain, France or Italy.
"Of course we have to do everything but Hungary had three good matches and they are first in their group.
"We will be favourites in this match but we'll have to be careful because they're going to play defensively and we'll have to be focused from the start." - Reuters.
It’s heavy, it’s disappointing, but at the same time I enjoyed it. I have many fantastic memories from the national team, because it’s a nice story because where I came from, a little... what people call the ghetto, and I made that country my country.
— Zlatan Ibrahimovic (above), after his last match for Sweden