As Italy solemnly pondered their elimination in a circle on the pitch, the Belgians had their own group. The quiet debriefing quickly ended with a raspy chant and, fittingly, a dance to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now.
It felt like 200F in the East Manchester sun as temperature records were broken across the country. Belgium made history of their own by reaching the quarter-finals of a major tournament for the first time in only their second European Championship thanks to Tine De Caigny’s precise strike.
Goals were needed as a 0-0 draw would guarantee both sides were eliminated from the competition regardless of the outcome between Iceland and France. Italy looked sloppy at the back in the scorching Manchester sun in the early stages. A stray ball from Elena Linari was recovered by Elena Dhont who cut inside and found Hannah Eurlings, but her curled shot went inches past the bar, much to the relief of the Italian back line.
It was 30C at 8pm when the match started, which could explain the slow pace of play. A refreshing break was in order just before the half hour mark, time to hydrate and follow instruction.
Belgium looked the more threatening of the two teams, but seemed determined to choose the wrong final pass on numerous occasions. Dhont positioned herself in space on the right for the midfielder to find her, but instead her colleagues decided to try to get the ball through the needle’s eye, finding centre-backs instead only space as they did. By the time the half-time whistle blew, neither goalkeeper had been tested, but at least they didn’t have to worry about staying warm.
It took less than five minutes after the restart, potentially helped by the setting sun behind the Etihad Stadium across the road during half-time to make the temperature more respectable, for De Caigny to bring the game to life . The midfielder found herself in space inside the box after Italy failed to clear a free kick and she chose her place in the bottom corner.
Italian head coach Milena Bertolini had previously described it as a ‘European Championship of suffering’ for her team and she will have felt greater pain watching Cristiana Girelli hit the bar and Valentina Giacinti’s shot, intended for the net, deflected wide as Italy lay. sits in front of the Belgian goal before and after the cooling break in the second half. That wasn’t enough to keep them in the tournament as their opponents, notably goalkeeper Nicky Evrard, valiantly held on to book a big game against Sweden on Friday. The Belgian players were still celebrating with their supporters in a corner of the pitch 45 minutes after the final whistle. Planning for Sweden can wait.
“It was very difficult in the last 20 minutes but we stayed tactical like against France, so it’s a great feeling to win this game,” Belgian Sari Kees said. “It’s an incredible feeling, it’s Belgian history thanks to a great team performance.”
After reaching the quarter-finals of the 2019 World Cup, Italy will feel deflated to have picked up a single point from England on their way to early elimination. “I think there were too many expectations,” Bertolini said. “People at home thought this team should win the European Championships. They achieved something amazing at the World Cup. We are a mid-range team, not a top team. They have added: “I will take all the blame for this outing. I’m in charge and in the line of fire.