Down in the stands, Kevin De Bruyne expressed the way they all felt, nerves shred, tension rising, pleading with his his team-mates to hang on. Alongside him, Eden Hazard sat too. Both men had been withdrawn, injured, now all they could do is watch as Belgium desperately hung on to a Thorgan Hazard goal that would see them go through.
If, that was, Portugal couldn’t find a way through, the pressure rising all the time.
Thibaut Courtois watched them come at him, the ball constantly launched into his area, until with twenty seconds to go João Felix’s shot slipped past the post and Belgium slipped into the next round. Exhausted, relieved, and with two fundamental men awaiting the extent of their injuries, but through at the end of a night that wasn’t the classic that might have been expected but didn’t want for nerves.
“This could have been the final, and finals are there to be won, not to be played,” Fernando Santos had said, which might have been a warning: what mattered was being effective not aesthetic. So too might Roberto Martínez’s suggestion that the first goal would shape the game.
Portugal might have got it after five minutes, when Diogo Jota was released on the left and shot poorly wide, but it rarely looked like coming. At least not until it actually did just before half time.
If Belgium took possession early, they never really found a way through. The few incisive passes they attempted too often handed over possession to a Portugal side happy to wait and, then, equally happy to take the ball for a while themselves without feeling an urgent need to go anywhere in particular.
Only Renato Sanches, bursting from deep really gave the game a sense of direction or urgency. It was working, up to a point too: Jota’s opportunity was the game’s clearest and then Thibaut Courtois had to push away Cristiano Ronaldo’s driven, dipping free-kick.
Twice Belgium escaped from deep only to be stopped by João Palhinha, the first time desperately pulling back Lukaku, the second hacking down De Bruyne. Between those, Thomas Meunier’s shot, hit with the outside of his right boot, bent beyond the far post. But not very much was happening. So much so that when Courtois neatly stepped round Ronaldo it was, with five minutes remaining before half-time, the loudest cheer came of the night so far.
Almost immediately, though, something much louder came along, the game getting the something special it needed when Thorgan Hazard came inside from the left and, from the edge of the area, smashed a shot into the net. Although the ball moved and Rui Patrício had seen it late, he might have reacted better.
Belgium had the lead, but not the man to lead them. De Bruyne’s knee had twisted and his ankle had doubled under that dreadful challenge from Palhinha and although he had hobbled on until the break two minutes into the second half, he was forced to make way. Unable to play through the midfield, that left Belgium’s preferred pathway out the ball to Eden Hazard, backing in and holding off opponents but it couldn’t stick every time and they looked far from comfortable, almost entirely losing control.
Portugal were no more subtle, Santos seeking to remedy that with the introduction of João Felix and Bruno Fernandes, even if the best chance to come their way in the opening moments of the second half was created by Ronaldo. Jota controlled, turned and hit a bouncing ball over the bar. Next, João Felix headed a deep cross goalwards, gathered by Courtois. It was not an onslaught exactly and Portugal created little, but this had tilted now, the ball Portugal’s.
Belgium unable to get possession they needed even if only to ease the pressure and breathe easily for a while. Up front, Lukaku ran and offered, but rarely received, thumping his one effort over. At the other end, Ronaldo hit a free-kick into the wall, Martínez seeing his side pushed ever deeper, without that translating into real opportunities to at least break into space and catch Portugal as they pushed.
The tension was growing, an edge emerging, the referee losing track of the multiplying tackles. A confrontation was caused by Pepe crashing into Thorgan Hazard, delivering a forearm smash. As time slipped away, it was direct and occasionally desperate, all going in one direction. Ruben Dias leapt to power a header goalwards, but Courtois punched away. A moment later, Raphael Guerreiro struck a superb, low shot on the bounce, that bent against the post.
There were eight minutes left, and this felt like a mater of time now, all the more so when Eden Hazard was forced to make way. Could Belgium hold on? Could Portugal find a way through? The ball kept dropping in Courtois’s area, the clearances increasingly frantic until, at last, Belgium emerged on the other side. When Joao struck wide, it was Portugal’s 23rd shot, but there were no goals.