Belgium became the first team to book their Euro 2020 place with a record-equalling 9-0 home thrashing in their qualifier against San Marino on Thursday. Inter Milan’s Romelu Lukaku was again among the goals while there were strikes for a forgotten man and talented teenager too.
This victory is Roberto Martinez’s best in his 12-year managerial career and equalled their best scoring margin, a 10-1 win against San Marino themselves back in February 2001.
Most of their nine-goal haul were scored in a frenzied first-half period, where their visitors conceded six in 17 minutes. Nacer Chadli, a Cristian Brolli own goal, Toby Alderweireld’s deflected strike from distance, Youri Tielemans and Lukaku’s brace – taking him past a milestone 50 goals for the Red Devils – proved more than enough for Roberto Martinez’s men.
That was before Crystal Palace striker Chrstian Benteke made it seven with a strike on the edge of the area which deceived goalkeeper Simone Benedtettini before nestling into the bottom corner. The goal was his first since a brace against Russia in March 2017 for the national team and will give him confidence, while a brutal scoreline regardless of the opposition is never a negative with Kazakhstan up next on Sunday.
There was still time for two further goals: fellow substitute Yari Verschaeren from the penalty spot, having been upheld by Brolli before Atalanta defender Timothy Castagne made it nine just before stoppage-time.
The loudest groan was seconds before full-time, pushing in search of their record-breaking goal but Club Brugge forward Hans Vanaken headed into the goalkeeper’s gloves from a promising corner. With that in mind, here’s a look at five talking points from Belgium’s latest victory:
#5 Remember the name, Yari Verschaeren
It seems cliche to say but rarely does a teenager feature as part of Belgium’s senior side – stacked with quality across the pitch – and not look out of place.
Anderlecht’s 18-year-old attacking midfielder Yari Verschaeren, who can also play in holding midfield and out wide, made his national team debut last month late on against Scotland. With 21 caps at various age-groups including a memorable summer at U21 level, he’s shown the type of composure beyond his years to justify such hype in his ability and potential.
Replacing Mertens midway through the second-half, he won and scored a penalty late on after being upheld in the box before playing an instrumental role in Belgium’s final goal of the evening. Fizzing an inviting cross into the box with Benteke lurking, Davide Simoncini’s interception only helped set up Castagne who fired home from close-range.
Having become the 13th-youngest player in Belgian history to feature for the senior side in September, the onus will be on him to retain his place among a multitude of world-class players with consistent displays, both on international duty and with Anderlecht. His displays have already attracted interest abroad, with Southampton among the clubs said to be tracking the teenager’s progress.
#4 San Marino not good enough at this level and it shows
Seven games into their Euro 2020 qualifiers and San Marino are rooted bottom of Group I, have no points and more pressingly, no goals to show for their efforts. They have conceded 37, more than double that of Scotland who sit a place above them with six points from seven played.
If you consider their standing within the FIFA rankings, none of this will come as a surprise. They are ranked 210 – dead last – and haven’t scored since September 2017, away against Azerbaijan in a World Cup qualifier they lost 5-1. Their defeats don’t make for good reading but at least in the UEFA Nations League, opposition is fair and a more competitive challenge.
Playing the likes of Belarus, Luxembourg and Moldova is more beneficial than being hammered against Belgium who in truth, could’ve easily scored double their nine-goal tally here. Eden Hazard came close twice, Dries Mertens hit the post, Lukaku and Benteke both squandered close-range opportunities. They had 79% possession and 45 attempts on goal, compared with San Marino’s two. Thibaut Courtois did well to keep concentrated in his role as a bystander here.
You could argue the experience of playing teams and world-class players like these stands them in good stead, improving them for future matches, but it’s just not competitive. These games resemble training exercises for their opposition, who can essentially score whenever they please.
Over the 90 minutes, Belgium completed 709 passes (782 attempted). San Marino didn’t even register 100 – which speaks volumes for the gulf in quality between these two teams and rather felt like a case of deja vu. You can’t help but feel for them in a qualifying format like this.
#3 Youri Tielemans making his presence felt
Most of the focus has centred around his midfield teammate James Maddison this term at Leicester, but Tielemans has quietly been doing his bit for club and country to start 2019/20.
On this occasion he delivered one of his best international performances to date and it’s no coincidence he’s done so at a crucial juncture in Roberto Martinez’s selection plans ahead of the new year. Last summer’s World Cup proved a forgettable tournament for the 22-year-old, who was largely on the periphery in pivotal fixtures despite encouraging group stage flashes when unleashed.
Marouane Fellaini’s NT retirement and Mousa Dembélé seemingly joining him frees up space for further midfield options. While Axel Witsel has impressed at Dortmund, creator-in-chief Kevin de Bruyne has not shaken persistent injuries and missed this international break – though Tielemans ensured his presence was felt in midfield here.
He stepped up in the City man’s absence with a goal and assist, during a rout where Youri was arguably Belgium’s best player and the statisstics prove it: 116 touches, 91.5% pass accuracy, two key passes, eight duels won with seven tackles.
San Marino afforded a player of his quality far too much time and space in possession, he was frequently making himself available and looked to hurt them on both ends of the pitch where possible, refusing to relent despite the heavy scoreline. If his teammates had better finishing on the night, he would have had a hat-trick of assists here. Although the quality of opposition were undeniably poor, Tielemans is clearly sending Martinez a message with his performances.
#2 Lukaku bags brace on memorable night
On the night where he reached and surpassed the 50-goal mark for his country, Lukaku bagged a brace in another big Belgium win – one that still left him frustrated on his pursuit of more goals.
It’s something that he is rightly unapologetic for and although they’ll have tougher tests to come than San Marino, it didn’t come as a surprise that he reacted in frustration when on course for a hat-trick was substituted for Christian Benteke, who is searching for regular goalscoring form.
On another evening, he would’ve got his third and more besides. He registered eight of Belgium’s 45 attempts, four of which were on target and found himself involved in all their opening four goals for different reasons.
Teed up by Tielemans, he fired hard and low at Benedittini’s near post to break the deadlock. Turning creator three minutes later, he effortlessly shrugged off a defensive challenge to chest and control the ball before passing into Nacer Chadli on the edge of the box, to double the lead.
His deft flick was parried but bundled over the goalline by Brolli, who was helpless as his ‘keeper parried the strike straight into him with no time to react. Completing his brace six minutes later, he left their backline for dead before watching his deflected strike curl into the bottom corner.
Despite missing three big chances, he created two key passes (76.2% overall completion), netted a brace and created an assist too on a memorable night for himself and his teammates.
#1 Belgium right to be bullish about Euro 2020 chances
There’s a reason why Belgium are the world’s best team, according to FIFA rankings. They boast world-class players across the pitch – from defence and their goalkeeper into their attacking third, with various options and tactical possibilities galore.
Although de Bruyne and his former club teammate Vincent Kompany are notable absences, that doesn’t take away from the fact this generation has a great chance of attaining silverware before they miss the proverbial window of opportunity.
They fell short last summer to eventual winners France at the semi-final stage, while a shock 3-1 defeat by Wales at the Euros three years ago proved a watershed moment for the Marc Wilmots era.
Significant steps have been made since then and among the national teams that will feature across Europe next summer, Belgium are rightly heavily-fancied. They can’t afford to fall short much longer and recent progress proves they’re serious about achieving their full potential.