Ireland failed to exploit any lingering doubts from Belgium’s opening round defeat against Italy. The sides went into the pause deadlocked. For Belgium it wasn’t for the want of trying. They sent nine shots towards Darren Randolph’s goal in the first-half. His Belgium opposite, Thibaut Courtois, had been untroubled.
Any thoughts of further gridlock were dispelled three minutes after the restart as Lukaku opened the scoring. With Ireland forced to come out of their shell, they were vulnerable to the counterattack.
However there was no element of that tactic for Witsel’s goal: 28 passes preceded it before the Zenit St Petersburg midfielder headed home.
“That second goal knocked the stuffing out of us,” said Martin O’Neill, the Ireland coach. “My disappointment is that a few days ago against Sweden we played exceptionally well with the ball and against Belgium when we had it, we looked a bit nervous and we gave it away too readily. And so it was coming back at us quickly.
“It was disappointing that their first goal came from a counterattack when the ball was bouncing around in their area from a free kick that we had taken and when you start to chase the game and get stretched, then fine players can punish you.”
Belgium’s third epitomised O’Neill’s analysis. An Irish attack was broken down, the ball was pushed out into space on the midfield. The question was who would get to it first: Ciaran Clark or Eden Hazard? Clark slid in, failed to take the ball or the man and Hazard was away. Next question would he go for goal himself or centre? The skipper passed and Lukaku guided home.
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots bristled at the idea that his side had mutated into a counterattacking team. “I think we make the play," he said. "We did that against Italy but the problem is when you try to control things you can leave spaces. But when you are winning 1-0 we have weapons and we know that.”
Belgium take on Sweden on Wednesday night in Nice. A draw will take them into the last 16. Ireland need to beat Italy in Lille to have any hope of progress either as runners-up or as one of the four best third-placed teams. “We felt we could do something against Belgium,” said O’Neill. “It didn’t materialise for us and now we’ve got to go and throw everything into the match to try and win against Italy.