Romelu Lukaku seals Belgium win to leave Finland on the brink of exit

Glory comes in many forms, some of them very strange indeed – and so too does disappointment. The Finland coach Markku Kanerva had described this as the biggest game in his nation’s history and for 75 minutes, it looked as though they were on their way to the knockouts. It had not exactly been desperate defiance – there was too little riding on it for Belgium for that – but still, progress through the group at their first tournament would have been a remarkable achievement.

And then came a Thomas Vermaelen header that hit the bar, hit the luckless Lukas Hradecky and bounced over the line. Suddenly Finland were left hoping for an unlikely combination of results in other groups to take them through.

Finland’s aim from the off was to resist and endure and try to get a point that, at worst, would have secured a place in the last 16 as one of the best third-placed teams. Given the only way Belgium could lose top spot was to lose this game, there was an air of futility from the off. There was not a huge amount of resisting or enduring to be done – certainly nothing to unsettle a nation that prides itself on its ‘sisu’, their spirit of resilience. The only real motivation from anybody, it felt, was from Romelu Lukaku as he hunted the Golden Boot.

This is not how major tournaments should be, an indictment of the format. Quite apart from the fact that it takes 71% of the games to eliminate 33% of the teams, there is a basic lack of sporting integrity: Finland knew that the two third-place teams in the groups that had been completed were Ukraine with three points and Switzerland with four points and a goal-difference of minus one; that a draw, taking them to four points and a level goal-difference would take them through.

It is not Finland’s fault – or Scotland’s or Croatia’s or Portugal’s or whoever’s – but those sides in the groups played later have a clear advantage. The preference for head-to-head rather than goal difference to separate sides who are level on points only diminishes any sense of jeopardy further.

And then there is the point that Finland were advantaged by playing Belgium last. With six points, Belgium knew they were already through and so made eight changes from the side that had come from behind to beat Denmark on Thursday.

Perhaps that is not so dramatic given that Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Axel Witsel came off the bench last week, and were started seemingly with the intention of getting minutes into their legs as they recover from injury.

Hazard was quite open about his lack of sharpness. “I’m going to play a little bit more each time until I hit that 100% mark,” he had said on Monday. “We’ll see how long I can play for.” Even in a pedestrian game, he looked well short of his best.

A rejig at the back, where Belgium had looked so uncertain against Denmark, saw Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen rested. Jason Denayer retained his place at the heart of the defence despite the mistake that cost the goal in Copenhagen, with Dedryck Boyata to his left and Vermaelen to his right.

It would take a better and more mobile team than Finland, though, to provide any kind of assessment of whether this permutation is any less rickety than what had gone before.

Occasionally somebody, usually De Bruyne or Lukaku, and on one occasion Finland forgot themselves and attempted something proactive, but for the most part the first half was played at walking, and fairly often standing, pace.

As Finland tired, it became slightly less of a stalemate and Hradecky, the Finnish sports personality of the year, made good low saves from Jérémy Doku and Witsel.

Lukaku was thwarted by the most marginal of VAR offsides after latching onto a De Bruyne through-ball. But Belgium would not be denied forever and after Hradecky’s own goal, Lukaku turned to lash in his third of the tournament.

Finland, having been 15 minutes from finishing second and setting up a last-16 tie against Wales, briefly slipped to bottom of the group. Denmark’s flurry of goals against Russia bounced them back up to third, but it is unlikely three points and a minus two goal difference will take them through.

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