It looked like Belgium were going to blow Wales out of the water in what was practically a home game for them in front of raucous crowd just a few miles from the Belgium border. They had already taken a handful of shots before Radja Nainggolan's howitzer found the back of Wayne Hennessy's net in the opening quarter of an hour. It was an official assist for Eden Hazard, his fourth of the tournament.
It was to be the high-point of Belgium's day.
After the first 20 minutes or so, Wales's organization, attitude, and determination slowly took control of proceedings. Courtois managed to pull off one wonderful save...
...before a total lack of organization and discipline allowed Ashley Williams to level the score from a schoolyard routine on a corner kick. Pro-tip: when tasked with standing on the post, Kevin De Bruyne, be sure to actually stand on the post.
The first-half ended with some wide open football, both teams creating and wasting good chances. It was great entertainment for the neutrals.
And then Marc Wilmots decided to put on Marouane Fellaini at half-time, presumably to deal with Wales's aerial threat, but all it did was stunt the attack and leave the defense just as vulnerable as it was before. Hal Robson-Kanu fired Wales in front before Sam Vokes struck the deathblow with a late header, Belgium's center backs missing in action both times. Wonder what Thibaut Courtois thinks of a "defense" featuring Jason Denayer and Jordan Lukaku (and Thomas Meunier and an overworked Toby Alderweireld)?
Belgium's problems extended well beyond the defense, too, though while those issues can be explained away with untimely injuries to key players, the coach's decision to play the entire second half with three holding midfielders cannot. Relying on the trio of Fellaini, Witsel, and Nainggolan to create chances seems like a futile exercise. Sure, Fellaini was eventually pushed up, but that just resulted in Belgium turning to one-dimensional hoofball.
Michy Batshuayi was belatedly thrown on with 10 minutes to go (instead of Romelu Lukaku, rather than in addition to Lukaku), but by then, Wales had the unbeateable spirit of the underdog firmly in them. They were never going to concede, much less lose the game at that point. They stayed strong, organized, got several lucky decisions from the referee (Taylor foul on Lukaku anyone?), and punched their ticket to the semifinal (!) against Portugal. Gareth Bale vs. Cristiano Ronaldo, mark your calendars for Wednesday.
And so, another "golden generation" ends in failure, as golden generations tend to do. Of course, many of Belgium's best and brightest are still very young. They will be back. But maybe with a different coach? That might be helpful.
No doubt this will be chalked up as a failure for Eden Hazard's captaincy as well, but he was far from the worst player out there today. Either way, now he has a few weeks to get over this disappointment, rest, recharge, STAY FIT, and come back to the real business of Chelsea and being awesome. (You too, Thibaut.)