Kevin De Bruyne came off the bench to fire Belgium into the last 16 with a comeback victory over Denmark on an emotional night in Copenhagen.
Playing for the first time since suffering facial fractures during the Champions League final, the Manchester City playmaker set up Thorgan Hazard’s 55th-minute equaliser and then clinched a 2-1 Group B win with a stunning finish 20 minutes from time.
Five days after midfielder Christian Eriksen had suffered a cardiac arrest on the same Parken Stadium pitch, Yussuf Poulsen fired the Danes into an early lead as FIFA’s number one-ranked team were outplayed until De Bruyne arrived to light up proceedings.
Kasper Hjulmand’s men could hardly have got off to a better start when they took the lead with less than two minutes gone.
Jason Denayer’s careless pass out of defence was picked off by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and when he fed Poulsen, the striker smashed a low shot across keeper Thibaut Courtois and inside the far post.
Courtois found himself in the thick of action early on, diving at the feet of wing-back Joakim Maehle and then fielding Daniel Wass’ header back across goal inside the opening six minutes with Belgium in uncharacteristic disarray.
Play stopped briefly as the clocked ticked around to 10 – the shirt number worn by Eriksen – as the players of both sides and officials joined the spectators in a moving moment’s applause for the Inter Milan midfielder.
Belgium simply could not force their way into the game as they repeatedly squandered possession to leave Danish keeper Kasper Schmeichel untested, and Courtois was relieved to see Eriksen’s replacement Mikkel Damsgaard curl a 35th-minute effort just past the upright.
Roberto Martinez sent on De Bruyne as a half-time substitute in a desperate search for inspiration – he was soon to be followed by Axel Witsel and Eden Hazard – and the move paid dividends within 10 minutes.
Romelu Lukaku ran away from the Danish defence before squaring for De Bruyne, who expertly dummied his way into space before rolling the ball into the path of the fast-arriving Thorgan Hazard to thump into the net.
But it was his sumptuous 70th-minute strike, which flew past the helpless Schmeichel and into the bottom corner, which ultimately won the day and maintained the Red Devils’ perfect start.
Martin Braithwaite might have rescued a point three minutes from time, but saw his header from substitute Andreas Skov Olsen’s cross clip the crossbar and run away to safety.