Belgium and Portugal took one point apiece from their first appearance at this UEFA European Under-21 Championship, the Group A contest in Gronginen ending goalless.
Both sides have been hailed, in some quarters, as potential winners of this tournament, yet over the 90 minutes it was a strong and lively Belgium team who staked the more convincing claim. Only their inability to convert a flurry of first-half chances preserved the stalemate.
The Euroborg Stadium complex boasts a further education college, which was appropriate as Portugal are many people's idea of a Grade A student at this level. Coach José Couceiro counted on five graduates of the Sporting Clube de Portugal academy, with two featuring in the early exchanges. After Manuel Fernandes had shot into the side-netting, the same midfielder passed in-field to João Moutinho whose first-time touch sent Sporting team-mate Yannick Djaló racing into the opposition box. The finish had rather less gloss, being blasted against goalkeeper Logan Bailly.
After a tentative start, Belgium began to suggest why they have been billed as their country's best generation in a decade. Anthony Vanden Borre released Kevin Mirallas in the penalty area but with Portugal keeper Paulo Ribeiro exposed, the forward dragged his attempt wide. Giant central midfielder Marouane Fellaini then advanced to knock down a long ball to the feet of Mirallas, who fired over when free. Despite being deployed in a defensive role, Fellaini was a target for high balls around the Portugal box, showing the fluidity of François De Sart's 4-3-3 formation.
Although Van Borre appeared hampered by a left-foot injury, it was his right foot that almost connected with captain Maarten Martens' cross-cum-shot towards the half-hour. And the same player rode the sliding tackle of Semedo to surge towards the Portugal area in a two-on-two situation which was defused when his through-pass fell short. With willing forwards Martens and Mirallas keeping Portugal's defence on edge, Jonathan Blondel crossed, Fellaini challenged Paulo Ribeiro, and the unclaimed ball was sidefooted wide by Vanden Borre. Belgium were dominant. Sepp De Roover broke down the right before playing in Martens, whose shot was blocked by Paulo Ribeiro, the rebound being sent over by Blondel. Mirallas's relentless front-running should also have brought reward when he grazed the post.
If the first-half honours went to De Sart's protégés, Belgium continued to look the more enterprising side as the second period unfolded. Mirallas the spearhead, supported by Vanden Borre, Maartens and Blondel, were running their socks off in search of the breakthrough. On the hour, this almost came at the other end. Yannick centred from the left, Hugo Almeida punched a header towards goal, Bailly made a brilliant save. This was not a tide-turning event. As a hot day surrendered entirely to a cool, damp evening, there was an air of desperation about Portugal's defending. Only Mirallas himself stopped Vanden Borre getting on the end of a menacing deep cross. When Fellaini did connect with a Sébastien Pocognoli delivery, he nodded wastefully over.
Belgium were nearly left to rue their profligacy as the game entered its final ten minutes. Substitute Silvestre Varela's shot from inside the Belgium box required the intervention of two defenders to deflect it over; Manuel Fernandes's devastating effort from outside almost burnt a hole in the side-netting. In keeping with the overall complexion of the match, however, Manuel da Costa was forced to head clear Tom De Mul's curling strike in the dying seconds.