No, Belgium did not choke in losing a World Cup semi-final to France. That would suggest that Belgium, being the superior side, managed to throw the plot away at a key juncture.
The Red Devils, such a feared attacking force, were made to look toothless and hapless by a well-drilled French outfit. They were frustrated, lost the plot a few times and were beaten square and sound even if it was by a single goal.
The same team that managed to score at a rate of three goals or more per game in the run-up to the World Cup, top scorers in the tournament till this point with 13, were nullified by Samuel Umtiti, Raphael Varane, Paul Pogba, N’golo Kante and Hugo Lloris.
Dembele and other questionable calls
Belgium had their chances but they had blinked first in changing their tactics for the marquee clash. The suspension of the right-sided Thomas Meunier had given Roberto Martinez quite a head-ache and it forced the Spaniard into selecting Moussa Dembele.
More important than the personnel change was the tweak in formation. Throughout the tournament and even against Brazil, the 3-4-3 had served the 1986 semi-finalists well, allowing them to switch from attack to defence and back at will.
In Saint Petersburg, Martinez, instead of opting for a straight swap had plumped for the 3-5-2, caving to the opposition’s demands and significantly hampering his own team’s attack. No longer was Kevin de Bruyne in the advanced attacking position that had seen him score a belter in the quarters and Romelu Lukaku was forced to go central again.
Against Brazil, Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini had been brought in and had been imperious. Here, they were found wanting against an unyielding opponent. The tactical decision to drop Yannick Carrascco and Dries Mertens had worked on that night.
Here, the Dembele decision backfired and Martinez knew it; the Tottenham man was the first to make way as Mertens was introduced. In his duel against Pogba, Dembele lost by quite a margin. De Bruyne was on the periphery of the play, as he was, earlier into the tournament. Yet, one man is expected to bear the brunt of this Belgian defeat.
Romelu Lukaku goes missing
Lukaku’s game has always been confidence-based. Tasked with leading the line for Belgium was never going to be easy, especially after their glittering displays off late.
Not withstanding, the Manchester United forward looked to run at defenders and shake them off for a cozy 90 minutes. Against France, he was asked to and he stuck to the job of remaining central, to annoy Umtiti and Varane.
Unfortunately for him, he was so far away from the support cast that the first half barely saw a chance created for him, or for that matter, a ‘half-chance’. Martinez’s flooding of the midfield saw Belgium control most of the ball, but short on numbers when it came to delivering it into the box.
His golden chance did come towards the end of the game, as De Bruyne delivered a peach of a ball from deep but Lukaku checked his run and halted abruptly, not reaching the ball. At 29, the next World Cup won’t be beyond him but there’s no doubting that this semi-final did not see the best of Lukaku. His energy and work rate, which has been on display throughout the World Cup, were missing on Tuesday evening, either through his own inaction or through his manager’s surprising decisions.
Golden generation’s golden chance gone
It was always going to be a game of fine margins, and so it proved as Umtiti’s header was the difference maker. Umtiti out-jumped Fellaini, elbows and all, to deliver the fatal punch and it was decisive, given France’s strengths at the back.
“Not scoring the first goal was going to be very difficult because of the way France were set up,” Martinez would later admit. The difference could have been larger, had Giroud and the French attackers taken the chances that came their way but Courtois stood firm amidst the chaos.
Eden Hazard, he of the tricky dribble fame, try as he might, could not drag his team over the line as they fell flat. That he will be in running for the Golden Ball will come as scant consolation to him but he can nonetheless hold his head high.
Belgium’s golden generation won’t fade away easily and might come back roaring to win Euro 2020, but this was a big chance lost. Like in 2014, the exit was meek and that is what will be gnawing at the players as they try and pick themselves up for a third-place match on Saturday.