Football Features

Belgium 0-1 Slovakia: Red Devils suffer opening round upset to put Euro 2024 campaign on the back foot

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 19:00, 17 June 2024

Belgium have it all to do after Slovakia emerged as 1-0 winners in their Euro 2024 opener at the Frankfurt Arena this afternoon.

No longer viewed as dark horses or among the pre-tournament favourites with their much-heralded ‘golden generation’ now slowly becoming a remnant of the past, the Red Devils, ranked fourth in the world, were still heavily favoured to begin with a win against Group E minnows.

This was Belgium’s first match at a major tournament without Thibaut Courtois in goal since June 17, 2002 (Geert De Vlieger against Brazil), with Courtois featuring in each of the Red Devils’ previous 25 such games.

Koen Casteels, who had long lived in the shadow of Real Madrid’s shot-stopper, would have hoped for a quiet afternoon but found himself picking the ball out of the net in the seventh minute after Jérémy Doku, who had started the game brightly, was caught out. Ivan Schranz squeezed in from a tight angle after a cute flick from Róbert Boženík gave Juraj Kucka a chance. Although Casteels saved his effort, he could do nothing about the rebound.

Timed at 6:05, it was the earliest goal Slovakia had netted in a major international tournament (European Championship/World Cup).

Speaking of Kucka, he is one of three players named in Slovakia’s starting XI who are 35 or older: Peter Pekarík (37), Kucka (37), and Martin Dúbravka (35). They are only the second nation in European Championship history to do so, along with France at Euro 2008, who named Grégory Coupet, Claude Makélélé, and Lilian Thuram in their XI for games against Romania and the Netherlands.

Francesco Calzona, who spent the latter part of last season juggling his Slovakia managerial duties with restoring some credibility at former club Napoli, picked a somewhat experienced lineup. At the same time, compatriot Domenico Tedesco, in the other dugout, started with Zeno Debast — partnering Wout Faes in central defence — who, at the age of 20 years and 237 days old, became the third-youngest Belgian player to start a game at the European Championship, behind only Enzo Scifo in 1984 (18 years, 115 days) and Doku in 2021 (19 years, 25 days).

Casteels would have felt better after making a picturesque save to deny Lukáš Haraslín’s controlled volley from inside the penalty area minutes before halftime. The same could not be said for much-maligned Belgian marksman Romelu Lukaku, who was guilty of wasting three opportunities before tapping home Amadou Onana’s knockdown at the back post from a yard out, only for VAR to rule the effort offside. It also did not help that on two separate occasions, both flankers Leandro Trossard and Doku could have squared the ball to him but chose to go for goal instead, leaving the Roma man cutting a forlorn figure.

The latter felt somewhat understandable as Doku’s mindset was being shaped by making it up to his teammates after momentarily losing concentration. Starting on the right flank, opposite where he nominally roams for club side Manchester City, he completed six dribbles, overtaking Cody Gakpo and Jamal Musiala in this metric at Euro 2024 (both five).

It may have been surprising to see Johan Bakayoko starting on the bench, given that he’s equally threatening down the wing, but the PSV forward nearly made an immediate impact when Feyenoord centre-back Dávid Hancko flung himself to block Bakayoko’s shot on the line. The failed chances started to add up as Belgium missed 4+ big chances in a European Championship game for the first time since 1980 against Spain (also four). Furthermore, they’ve failed to convert any of their last 47 shots at major international tournaments (European Championship/World Cup).

Indeed, of those wayward efforts, 11 are deemed clear-cut chances by the Opta data collection team. It felt that streak was broken after Lukaku slammed home Loïs Openda’s run and cross, but the RB Leipzig man was harshly judged to have handled in the build-up.

Lukaku — whose three attempts in this game have produced an xG of 0.82, almost double Slovakia’s team total (0.59) — frustratingly had a second goal disallowed, which meant the football gods were smiling on Slovakia, who completed the mother of upset wins and first surprise result of this tournament against Belgium, the side ranked second in Europe.

Since appointing Domenico Tedesco in February 2023, the Belgians have avoided defeat in all 14 matches before today and have only failed to score in one. Slovakia handed Tedesco the first loss of his tenure, and they now need positive results against Romania and Ukraine to reach the knockout phase of a major tournament.