Kevin De Bruyne inspired Belgium to a 2-1 comeback win over Denmark that secured their place in the knockout stages of Euro 2020.
With Roberto Martinez’s side trailing to an early Yussuf Poulsen goal, De Bruyne came off the bench for the second half, his first outing since injury forced him off during Manchester City’s Champions League final defeat to Chelsea.
And the 29-year-old quickly provided a brilliant assist for Thorgan Hazard before turning the game completely on its head with an equally superb finish that secured the points.
Just five days on from those traumatic scenes involving Christian Eriksen in Copenhagen, the home fans welcomed their heroes back to Parken by creating an electric atmosphere.
The consequences of that were apparent just two minutes in as Jason Denayer played a panicky pass out from the back that was easily intercepted by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.
The Tottenham midfielder did well to shrug off his man in charging toward goal and poke the ball to Poulsen, who produced a powerful low finish into the bottom corner from just inside the box.
That early strike served to further stir the Danes, who twice went close moments later as Joakim Maehle saw a shot smothered and Martin Braithwaite flicked goalward from a low cross.
Proceedings were paused after 10 minutes for a short period of applause in support of the absent Eriksen, a tribute that served to somewhat dull the hosts’ momentum.
But Belgium were relieved to see a Mikkel Damsgaard effort dribble wide of the post after great footwork in the box, once Denmark got going again after the half-hour mark.
The visitors’ poor performance prompted a half-time change, the ineffective Dries Mertens making way for De Bruyne.
And the substitute made an almost immediate impact, building on a trademark burst forward from Romelu Lukaku by sitting down two opponents before teeing up Thorgan Hazard to level up from close range.
De Bruyne then went one better, getting on the end of a slick team move to smash a low, left-footed drive home from the edge of the penalty area, in front of the delighted Belgian supporters.
Denmark made a late push to get back on terms, going closest when Braithwaite brushed the bar with a header at the death, but they were ultimately held at arm’s length by a team who strengthened their credentials as potential tournament winners.
What does it mean? Belgian looking strong
With six points under their belts, Belgium know that their place in the knockout stage is assured.
Denmark, meanwhile, know that only a win in their final group game could earn them a place in the latter stages of the tournament.
De Bruyne crucial to Belgium hopes
As if a goal and assist weren’t proof enough of his importance, De Bruyne also won five of his six duels and made 19 passes in the opposition half during an inspirational second-half cameo.
The Manchester City’s man’s fitness didn’t look in doubt, either, which means he is now surely guaranteed a starting berth in each of Belgium’s remaining games in this tournament.
Mertens under pressure
Conversely, it is not a good look for Mertens to be the player who left the field for the matchwinner.
The 34-year-old managed just 18 touches, lost all four of his duels, and had six passes in the opposition half during a forgettable first half – he now faces a battle to get his place back.
Key Opta facts
– Belgium have won their opening two matches at a European Championship tournament for the very first time, while Denmark have lost their first two games in the competition for the first time since Euro 2000.
– Belgium have won 11 of their last 12 group stage matches at major tournaments (World Cup and Euros), winning seven in a row since a 2-0 defeat to Italy at Euro 2016.
– Since Martínez’s first match in charge of Belgium in September 2016, the Belgians have won 45 matches in all competitions, two more than any other European team in that time.
– Poulsen’s goal after just 99 seconds for Denmark was the second quickest goal in a match in European Championship history, with only Dmitry Kirichenko’s goal for Russia against Greece at Euro 2004 coming earlier (65 seconds).
– Belgium managed just one shot in the first half, their fewest in a match under Martínez since his first game in charge against Spain in September 2016 (also one shot).
– With both coming on as substitutes and assisting, Eden Hazard and De Bruyne became the only two European players to assist a goal at each of the last four major tournaments (2014 World Cup, Euro 2016, 2018 World Cup, Euro 2020). Hazard played the pass that De Bruyne smashed in for the winner.
– Belgium conceded a goal inside the opening two minutes of a match for the first time since May 2006 against Turkey, when Necati Ates scored in the second minute.
– Mertens won his 100th cap, becoming only the fifth player to earn 100 or more caps for Belgium, after Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Axel Witsel and Eden Hazard.
Belgium head back to St Petersburg to complete their group-stage campaign against Finland on Monday, while Denmark remain in Copenhagen to take on Russia on the same day.
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