There was a curious reaction to Belgium hitting par against the Republic of Ireland. Marc Wilmots was oddly triumphant in his post-match press conference, as though all criticisms of him have finally been laid to rest - when clearly they haven’t. And many ‘neutrals’ also, seemed to take delight in mocking the doubters, as though the reaction to the Italy defeat had stung them also.
But nothing has really changed. It was only Ireland and, for 45 minutes, it was more of a struggle than it probably should have been. Now it’s only Sweden, but Belgium aren’t going to be judged on how they perform once ahead against group-stage makeweights, their Euro 2016 prospects rest on their problem-solving abilities against bigger nations when games are tight.
But for now at least, defiance is good and it should be enough to brush aside the toothless Swedes. Erik Hamren’s men have yet to register a shot on target at this tournament, so a clean sheet for Thibaut Courtois should be a formality. Again, the breakthrough might take a while but, once it arrives, conditions dictate that Sweden should open themselves up to further damage.
And that’s broadly the basis for bets on the Draw/Belgium half-time/full-time outcome at 37/10 and the 2-0 correct score at 15/2. By my reckoning, Sweden aren’t as capable as Ireland but this game could follow an almost identical pattern, the main difference being that Belgium’s intensity might not be at the same level now they feel as though they’ve been vindicated.
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The Red Devils also have a last-16 clash to consider - most probably against Portugal - which is less than four days later, the second-quickest turnaround of any non-third-placed team. Going 1-0 up is imperative, 2-0 up kills the contest and allows them to relax. After that, there’s arguably more to be lost than gained by going after a third or fourth.
There’s very little to say about what Sweden can offer, the joke being how much they missed Ciaran Clark in their last game against Italy. After three hours of football, the Ireland defender remains their most potent attacking weapon. The lack of creativity against the Azzurri was predictable but the lack of intensity was unforgivable.
The Italians had put in a monumental shift against the Belgians in their first outing - running four kilometres more than any other team - and, in theory, they should have been vulnerable to fatigue had the Swedes been able to raise the tempo. Instead, the Scandinavians ran five kilometres fewer and now sit third-from-bottom in the distance covered charts.
On that basis, you might argue they have plenty left in the tank for one last push. The more plausible assertion, though, is that they simply lack desire because it's all about Zlatan Ibrahimovic. For 18 months, nobody else gets a look-in. So why would players from a low power distance country bust a gut, when they know one man alone is going to take all the glory?
Click here for more information about Mike Holden’s shot-based ratings system