Belgium 4 – 1 Northern Ireland
With just one pre-tournament friendly before going to the Women’s Euro 2022 finals, Kenny Shiels wanted a lot from Northern Ireland’s clash with Belgium.
One thing he did get was a lot from his players and, before joining the top teams on the continent in a fortnight’s time, they showed that they can match the best around — at least with 11 players on the pitch.
A Belgium team that is packed with prolific strikers was pushed back for a large parts of the first half before taking the lead through Tessa Wullaert and, after a stunning equaliser from Lauren Wade, they only took control of the game against 10 players in the final 20 minutes after goalkeeper Jackie Burns had been red-carded.
The 4-1 scoreline was far from being a true reflection of the game. Shiels will know that, his players will know that too — as will first finals opponents Norway — and they will take a lot from the first 70 minutes and hope that they can repeat that when they get to the finals.
On paper, it looked like Shiels had set up his Northern Ireland team in a 5-4-1 formation designed to cope with Belgium’s immense goal threat in defence and counter attack quickly.
Very quickly, however, Abbie Magee and Demi Vance on either side were pushed high and that then allowed Lauren Wade and Kirsty McGuinness to get close to Simone Magill in attack as the green shirts pushed Belgium back in the opening stages.
A cross from McGuinness almost caught out goalkeeper Nicky Evrard as it drifted towards the net before she clawed it away just a couple of minutes in and, before Belgium could pose any kind of threat, Vance got on the end of another cross, this time from Magee, but couldn’t pull the ball past the Belgian defence.
It was only a matter of time before a team as talented a Belgium would threaten. Julie Nelson stepped out of defence to make a challenge, the ball was played into the space she left behind and Magee did very well to get back and a make challenge on Hannah Eurlings to prevent her going one-on-one with Burns.
The next time Belgium moved the ball so swiftly, it ended up in the back of the net.
Tine De Caigny powered through the middle before sending Davina Philtjens away on the left and her low ball across the face of goal was tucked home by Wullaert eight yards out.
It was slightly harsh on Northern Ireland, but they hit back with a stunning strike right on the 45 minute mark.
Sarah McFadden showed her strength when she won a tackle midway inside the Belgium half, the ball broke to McGuinness who flicked it sideways and Wade smashed home from edge of box with her left foot.
Burns made a low save to her left with the only real chance of a second half low on openings until, with 20 minutes to go, Wullaert was sent through from distance. She knocked the ball past the on-rushing Burns, but kept running straight on and neither player could avoid the collision.
The red card from French referee Victoria Beyer was harsh, but Burns won’t be suspended for the finals.
The forced introduction of sub stopper Becky Flaherty largely wrecked Shiels’ substitution plans and disorganised the team.
After containing the threat for a good 10 minutes, there was no pressure on the ball as Wullaert danced around green shirts, or on Elena Dhont who crossed for Ella Van Kerkhoven to head home at the back post to make it 2-1 on 83 minutes.
Wullaert was clinical when she made it 3-1 just three minutes later, pouncing to take possession after Kassandra Missipo had dispossessed Magee.
The fourth goal, deep in injury time, appeared to go into the net with Laura Rafferty getting the last touch under pressure from Van Kerkhoven after a knockdown from Féli Delacauw as gaps started to appear.
It was all about fitness and a performance for Shiels and, to an extent, he got both.
It is just the final touches the team needs in the next two weeks in order to make sure they can go all the way to the 90 minute mark in the finals.
BELGIUM: Evrard, Kees (Dhont, 46 mins), Tysiak (Delacauw, 85 mins), De Neve, Philtjens, Cayman (Deloose, 66 mins), Biesmans, Vanhaevermaet (Missipo, 78 mins), Wullaert, De Caigny (Van Kerkhoven, 78 mins), Eurlings (Vanmechelen, 66 mins).
Unused subs: Lemey, Lichtfus, Wijnants, Janssens, Minnaert.
NORTHERN IRELAND: Burns, Magee, Nelson (Rafferty, 46 mins), McFadden (Holloway, 64 mins), Burrows (Hutton, 78 mins), Vance, Wade (Flaherty, 70 mins), Caldwell, Furness (McCarron, 64 mins), K McGuinness (Wilson, 46 mins), Magill.
Unused subs: Finnegan, McDaniel, Andrews, Beattie, C McGuinness.
Referee: Victoria Beyer (France).
Player of the match: Tessa Wullaert
Match rating: 7/10.