The Republic of Ireland face the daunting prospect of having to beat Italy in their final Group E game if they are to advance to the knockout stage of EURO 2016.
There were shades of Poland four years ago as Martin O’Neill’s side faded badly against a vastly superior side in Belgium who put away three second half goals without reply.
Everton striker Romelu Lukaku helped himself to a brace either side of Axel Witsel’s header, while Ireland never really troubled Thibaut Courtois at the other end.
Despite plenty of pre-game talk about disharmony in the Belgian ranks, it was always going to be difficult for Ireland to get anything out of the game, and such a heavy defeat makes Monday’s draw with Sweden even harder to take.
O’Neill made just one change to the team that played in the opening game, with Stephen Ward coming into the side in place of the injured Jonathan Walters.
Ward took up the left back spot, while Robbie Brady pushed further forward and on the other side, Jeff Hendrick was given the task of provide support to Seamus Coleman after James McCarthy failed to do so sufficiently against the Swedes.
From the outset, Ireland looked a completely different side to the one that dominated Zlatan Ibrahimovic and co. with countless long balls in the opening stages to a very isolated Shane Long.
They defended deep, even dropping into two banks of five with every player behind the ball, in an attempt to frustrate the Belgians.
Kevin De Bruyne looked more like his usual self as he pulled the strings for Belgium from a central position, and his deadballs were dangerous throughout.
On the flipside, Ireland’s final ball was terrible, with Wes Hoolahan guilty of taking too much time and then a heavy touch when he could have played Hendrick through on goal.
For all their possession, Belgium didn’t really trouble Darren Randolph between the Irish posts and a half time score of 0-0 was something to build on for O’Neill’s side.
It took just three minutes of the second period for much of the optimism to die as the first goal arrived from the boot of Lukaku.
Ireland felt they may have had a penalty when a high boot from Toby Alderweireld connected with Long in the area but referee Cuneyt Cakur, who gave the striker very little throughout, waved play on.
Belgium broke, and when De Bruyne fed Lukaku just outside the box, the big striker opened up and placed a left foot shot past Randolph.
McCarthy could have taken one for the team but chopping down De Bruyne as he broke free but the midfielder opted not to, perhaps conscious that he was already on a booking from the Sweden game and another would mean a suspension.
Belgium went two goals to good just after the hour mark when a right wing cross from full back Thomas Meunier was met by the head of Witsel who had ghosted past McCarthy in the penalty area.
Bad decision making on the first one, he should have held DeBryune up. For the second goal, he lost his man Witsel, just ball watching and he got in behind him. Bad decision making and lack of concentration.
– Liam Brady on James McCarthy
James McClean immediately replaced McCarthy but that did very little to change the flow of the game as Belgium looked to add to their tally.
On 70 minutes, McClean failed to look after the ball in an attacking position, allowing Eden Hazard to pick up possession on the right wing.
The Chelsea man jinked past Ciaran Clark and ran unopposed into the Irish box before squaring to an unmarked Lukaku who made no mistake with the finish.
Having been kicked from pillar to post all afternoon, Shane Long was given a rest with Robbie Keane taking his place, while Wes Hoolahan was replaced by Aiden McGeady.
Like Sweden in both of their games so far, Ireland failed to register a shot on target over the course of 90 minutes from ten attempts.
In the first half, goalkeeper Randolph was involved more than most with the ball.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 18, 2016
For Belgium, Witsel (63 completed passes from 65 attempted) and Mousa Dembele (30 from 30 until injury forced him off) dictated the play behind De Bruyne, and were on hand to pick up the many loose Irish passes.
The performance and result were a perfect two fingers to the media who heavily criticised one of the pre-tournament favourites after the 2-0 defeat to Italy.
The manner in which Belgium picked off a side that can be very difficult to break down on its day will inspire confidence going into Wednesday’s clash with Sweden and beyond.
The big thing for us was to make sure that we started the second half that bit quicker and that bit better in possession. But we didn’t do that, we left ourselves too open to that counter attack.
– Republic of Ireland captain John O’Shea
Italy are now guaranteed to top the group having won their first two games, and manager Antonio Conte confirmed that he will be shuffling his pack against Ireland.
That may sound promising but there will be players involved that are desperate to win a place in the side for the last 16 game and beyond.
For their part, O’Neill and his assistant Roy Keane have a lot of work to do to pick the players up after what was a truly demoralising half of football in Bordeaux.
Ireland must get a win at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy in Lille on Wednesday night to make it to the knockout stages, but that looks very unlikely after today’s performance.