Belgium came into tonight’s Euro 2016 qualifying fixture with the knowledge that they’d already qualified for next summer’s tournament – and would top the FIFA rankings with a victory against Israel.As for their opponents, the odds were stacked against them. Marc Wilmot‘s side has a dazzling array of Premier League talent, including Manchester City duo Vincent Kompany and Kevin de Bruyne, as well as Chelsea‘s Eden Hazard and Manchester United‘s Marouane Fellaini. The quartet all featured, and it was always going to be a challenge for Israel – they needed to win in order to keep their own hopes of qualification alive.
Hosts start quickly and with purpose
Belgium could, and probably should, have found themselves ahead before the half-time interval. A number of half-chances in-front of goal, de Bruyne and Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan both saw stinging efforts flash wide of the mark.
Kompany, who only played sixty minutes on his return from a troublesome calf injury, saw a headed effort float its way towards the crossbar with the goalkeeper Ofir Marciano beaten, but the ball kept rising as it swerved over the woodwork.
Mertens with memorable miss
With all of this in mind, the best chance of the half was undoubtedly squandered by Napoli‘s creative spark – Dries Mertens. After a teasing cross was drilled in low towards the six-yard area by de Bruyne from the flank, all he had to do was shoot goalwards, and it’d have found its way into the back of the net.
The goal was gaping, the ‘keeper in no man’s land and Mertens with nothing but the goal to aim at, he somehow managed to fire his effort wide, and watched in horror as it trickled past the far post.
Israel almost grab one for themselves
Israel made rare attempts to go forward and Belgium’s backline was hardly tested. However, the visitors came close with a curling set-piece, which Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet would have been relieved to see strike his far post. Eran Zahavi‘s effort was well-struck and curling towards the bottom corner, but the hosts’ blushes were saved – especially after a half of such dominance.
Everton‘s powerful forward, Romelu Lukaku, cut a frustrated figure in the first-half. Having had virtually no service up-top, he was forced to try and create chances out of seemingly nothing at times, but his hold-up play was beneficial to help the side drive forward with pace and intent. Having seen two efforts trickle narrowly wide, hitting the side netting, the youngster was unlucky not to score a brace before being replaced in the second-half by Divock Origi.
Belgian barrage forward and get their just reward
At 0-0, it was still a tense affair. Israel didn’t push forward as much as they could have, by any means, but a counter-attacking move could easily have set them through with the chance to break the deadlock themselves.
Thankfully for the Belgians, that wasn’t the case. Instead, a moment of magic from Mertens opened the scoring – making amends for his earlier missed opportunity. After a neat pass into his path by de Bruyne on the edge of the area, the 28-year-old drove forward on a mazy dribble past two defenders before curling his effort past Marciano; who should have done better with the strike considering it was at his near post.
It went from bad to worse for Marciano, after Nainggolan won a set-piece in a dangerous position as a result of a dangerous tackle outside the box. de Bruyne stepped up to the plate, and looked hungry to add to his goal-scoring tally of four goals during qualifying. His effort was well-struck, floated over the wall and despite Marciano’s starting position automatically putting himself at a disadvantage, he managed to get both hands to the ball and parry the City man’s effort. Into his own net.
This was quite literally the epitome of Israel’s night – encouraging signs but poor execution, and they were ruthlessly punished by a far superior side on the evening, even though they should have been tested more than they were.
The icing on the cake was cooly finished off by Hazard with six minutes left to play, after a well-oiled passing move set him through on-goal with only the goalkeeper to beat. Despite a slow start to the 2015/16 campaign for the Blues, the 24-year-old was calm and collected, slotting the ball into the bottom corner from close-range.
For all of their efforts across the qualifying campaign, Israel were to go out with only a consolation goal in their final outing. Tommy Hemed‘s powerful headed finish evaded the helpless dive of Mignolet as it nestled into the far corner, after an inch-perfect delivery into his path by Zahavi.
As the final whistle blew, Belgian supporters danced in the stands. Their side had won quite comfortably in truth, and although they’ll have plenty of tougher opponents in the coming months, a performance like this one is certain to give them plenty of encouragement ahead of a challenging month in France, 2016.