Euro 2020: The Second Round – De Ligt Goes Out In Budapest
Until that point, it had been a fairly reasonably matched game. The Netherlands had started the stronger of the two sides, only for Czechia to come back stronger later in the half, but the sending off was the pivot upon which this match ultimately rested. The television cameras offered a better view of the incident than that referee seemed to have. De Ligt and Patrik Schick were tussling for the ball just outside the penalty area on the left-hand side when de Ligt, in mid fall, swatted the ball out of the way as Schick looked like breaking clear.
The referee saw the offence and gave a free-kick, but decided on the spot that this was only a yellow card offence. The Roboref, however, had other ideas, and called play back so that he could check his earlier decision. This time, following an agonising wait, the man in an early 1970s Coventry City kit saw the error of his ways and changed the colour of the card from yellow to red. It was the right decision, de Ligt was falling into a position from which he would not be able to recover. Schick would have had a free run on goal. None of this, of course, means that such a decision wouldn’t have been extremely difficult for the Dutch to take.
The Dutch did quickly reorganise, but the damage had been done. Midway through the half, a corner from the right was flicked back across goal and Tomas Holes headed in from close range despite the attention of three Dutch defenders on the goal line. There wasn’t really much of a way back for the Netherlands from here. Already a player short, committing more players forward carried potential risks that outweighed the benefits of doing so.
There was a sense of impotence about the Dutch that was unmistakeable, following the goal. The Czechs’ lead seldom felt in any meaningful danger, but there was still plenty of time for them to put the result beyond any doubt when Holes nicked the ball off a Dutch toe, chased into the penalty area and then dragged the ball back for Schick to gleefully prod the ball in at the near post to double the lead and put the outcome of the match beyond any further doubt.
Attention will undoubtedly fall upon ead coach Frank De Boer following such a disappointing early exit from the competition. De Boer was appointed on the strength of hi sprevious time with Ajax, but there were spells yesterday afternoon when the Dutch team seemed to have more in common with the Crystal Palace team that he briefly and disastrously managed at the start of the 2017/18 season. Czechia, meanwhile, move onto the quarter-finals of the competition. They won the European Championships in 1976 (the asterisk here is that most of the 1976 Czechoslovakia team were Slovakian rather than Czech) and were runners-up in 1996. Must we continue to call them ‘outsiders’ at this stage in the competition, when they have such a record?
The evening match between Belgium and Portugal had been trailed as a potential classic, but it largely failed to live up to this billing. The match was decided by a Thorgan Hazard goal three minutes from half-time, a goal that was brilliant and predictable in roughly equal measures. Picking up the ball on the left hand corner of the penalty area, he rifled a diagonal shot across goal that moved in the air and deceived Rui Patricio in the Portguese goal.
It wasn’t that Portugal didn’t have chances. Cristiano Ronaldo had a free-kick beaten away by Thibaut Courtois. Dioga Jota shot over from twelve yards. Joao Felix and Ruben Diaz brought moderately diverting saves from the Belgian goalkeeper as week. The one big chance they had fell close to the end for Raphael Guerreiro, but his shot thumped off the post and wide.
Belgium, then, progress to the quarter-finals of the competition, but this isn’t without questions about their future of the competition. Kevin De Bruyne picked up another injury, and he was joined by Eden Hazard on the bench after both were withdrawn. With teams like the Netherlands starting to fall now, though, their route to potentially winning this tournament now looks considerably clearer than it did. The question is whether they can coax these two players back to full fitness again, and whether their elderly defence will be able to withstand greater and greater pressures as they move into the quarter-finals and possibly beyond.
Portugal, meanwhile, are left rueing their heavy defeat to Germany in their group match. Finishing in third place in their group put them in the position of having to play Belgium this early in the competition in the first place. There’s a lesson to be learned there for those who believe that getting through the group stages is the only thing that matters at that stage of a tournament. Cristiano Ronaldo broke the record for international goals, and perhaps that’s enough to satisfy his bloodlust for celebration this year. What we can say for certain is that the holders will not be successfully defending their trophy this summer. We shall see, whether Cristiano Ronaldo appears in one of these summer jamborees again.