SEVILLE: Top-ranked Belgium and their golden generation face an early reckoning at the European Championship against determined holders Portugal, who clawed their way into the last 16 to set up the potential match of the round on Sunday.
The contrast in progress could not have been greater with Belgium masterfully overcoming adversity to win all their group games, while a pugnacious Portugal saw their fortunes ebb and flow before they finished third in their section after holding world champions France to a 2-2 draw on Wednesday.
An extra day of rest was Belgium's reward for topping Group B, having seen the talismanic trio of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Axel Witsel all return from injury after it looked as if the heart of the team had been torn out on the eve of the tournament, threatening to scupper their strong chances.
The influence of the trio was clearly displayed when they came on after a torrid first half in Belgium’s second group against Denmark, neutralising the emotion-fueled hosts and turning a halftime deficit into a 2-1 win in Copenhagen.
That allowed Roberto Martinez to rest players in the 2-0 win over Finland on Monday in a textbook tournament scenario.
But whether it turns out to be the ideal recipe for success in the knockout phase remains to be seen. It could be counter argued that Portugal are better prepared, having had to scrap against the likes of Germany, who beat them 4-2, and France.
Portugal coach Fernando Santos offered a simpler formula.
“These matches are all like finals now and if you don’t play well, you don’t win,” he told reporters.
“In league competitions you can play badly and still win but here at this tournament, at this stage if you don’t play well, you’ll lose... every time.”
Portugal have their own talisman in Cristiano Ronaldo, who needs one more goal to become the all-time top scorer in international soccer.
“He is in the form of his life,” said Belgium defender Toby Alderweireld, “but as a team we can stop him. That has always been our strength.”
“But they will be difficult, they are a real tournament team,” he added.
The juxtaposition between the match-winning capabilities of Ronaldo and Belgium’s own prolific marksman Romelu Lukaku adds intrigue to the game at La Cartuja stadium
With 63 goals for his country, Lukaku, who is eight years younger than Ronaldo, might one day challenge the Portugal captain’s record.
(Writing by Mark Gleeson in Cape Town; Editing by Ken Ferris)