Belgium preserved their record of having never lost to the Republic of Ireland in a competitive fixture, as the Red Devils defeated the Green Army 2-0 in Bordeaux to seal their first win of EURO 2016 and take a major step towards qualifying for the last-16.
Everton striker Romelu Lukaku struck a brace, which came either side of a second-half header from Axel Witsel, as Belgium moved up to second in the group stages – meanwhile the Irish drop to rock-bottom having failed to defeat the Red Devils at a seventh successive attempt.
The Red Devils made three changes to the side that disappointingly lost 2-0 to Italy in their EURO 2016 opener – Thomas Meunier came in for Laurent Ciman at right-back, meanwhile midfielders Mousa Dembele and Yannick Carrasco started ahead of Marouane Fellaini and Radja Nainggolan.
Meanwhile Martin O’Neill’s Green Army opted for the just the one change following their 1-1 draw with Sweden – Stephen Ward was drafted in for forward Jonathan Walters, who missed out with an Achilles injury.
However it was Belgium, the top-seeded nation at this summer’s European Championships, who completely dominated the opening 45 minutes – but ultimately failed to find a deserved breakthrough.
Defender Toby Alderweireld flashed a header wide of Darren Randolph’s goal after 13 minutes, before Kevin De Bruyne’s set piece was intended for a Belgian attack in the danger area, but his delivery missed everyone and thankfully fizzed past the goalkeeper’s left-hand post – much to Ireland’s relief.
The Manchester City ace was at the heart of Belgium’s attacking prowess, with his cross this time dropping kindly for Eden Hazard on the edge of the box, but the captain blazed his effort well over.
The closest Wilmots’ men came to taking the lead was in the 25th minute, when Carrasco did in fact hit the back of the net.
However the Atletico Madrid man’s strike was correctly ruled out for offside after latching onto another lofted through ball from De Bruyne.
Tottenham defenders Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen then spurned further chances from De Bruyne corners, as the Red Devils rued their lack of finishing after trudging off down the tunnel during the interval all square, despite their domination inside the Matmut Atlantique Stadium.
But whatever manager Wilmots said at half-time, it certainly worked! The Red Devils sprinted out of the blocks in the second period to score within two-and-a-half minutes of the restart.
Midfield maestro De Bruyne did brilliantly down the right-flank to beat James McCarthy, before finding an advancing Lukaku in space, teeing up the Everton striker, who then buried the ball expertly into the bottom corner from the edge of the area – giving the on sparing Randolph no chance.
Then on the hour-mark, it was double trouble for the Green Army. Full-back Meunier joined a Belgian attack before whipping in a lovely cross towards the six-yard area, which Witsel headed powerfully beyond the reach of West Ham United shot-stopper Randolph.
Cue another ten minutes, and the Belgian’s romped to their third goal of the afternoon. Aston Villa centre-half Ciaran Clark made a desperate lunge to stop Hazard down the right-flank on a Red Devils counter-attack, only to completely miss the ball, and the winger, to allow Belgium through two-on-one.
The Chelsea star soon sprinted towards the 18-yard area, before slotting the ball into the path of Lukaku, who tucked away his second strike of the match with ease. Game over.
Man of the match De Bruyne almost got the deserved goal he so desperately craved for in Bordeaux in the final seven minutes, but his shot on the turn was unfortunately straight at Randolph.
Substitute James McClean fizzed a 25-yard free-kick well wide of Thibaut Courtois’ net, as the Green Army failed to create any real goalscoring chances, meaning O’Neill’s men have recorded just the sole point from their opening two Group E games.
Soon referee Cuneyt Cakir blew the final whistle; as Belgium thoroughly made up for their underwhelming start to the tournament, meanwhile Ireland’s hopes of advancing to the knockout stages took a huge blow – with in-form Italy up next for the Green Army.
The Red Devils are now unbeaten in their last seven matches against the Republic of Ireland – winning three and drawing three – where the run dates all the way back to a 3-2 friendly loss in 1966.
Man of the Match: Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium)
The popular choice? Perhaps not, especially with Lukaku netting twice. But the Belgian magician was the heart and soul of his side’s attacking prowess throughout the entire 90 minutes inside the Matmut Atlantique Stadium – even during the goalless first-half.
The Manchester City star could have bagged multiple assists against the Irish if the likes of Alderweireld and Vertonghen had buried their early chances – plus if Carrasco timed his run a bit better after his offside strike.
However; the 24-year-old accomplished an almost flawless performance in Bordeaux, despite not getting his own name on the scoresheet – though he deserved to be.
De Bruyne assisted Lukaku’s opening strike on the break, before laying the ball off for Meunier’s delivery, which was eventually headed in by Witsel.
The playmaker certainly lived up to the billing as Belgium returned to their ruthless self after their below-par display against Italy.
The victorious Belgium take on third-placed Sweden in Nice on Wednesday, meanwhile rock-bottom Republic of Ireland face a tough must-win encounter against Group E leaders Italy in Lille on the same night.