Super subs rescue Belgium as the Red Devils get off to a winning start.
Belgium’s opening game in this world cup campaign was against the side with the highest FIFA ranking in Africa – Algeria. Whilst many people were expecting this game to be a walkover for Belgium, the North African side provided a very tough test for the team billed as this tournaments dark horse.
A fairly uneventful opening to the game saw Belgium have the lions share of possession without creating any clear cut chances, as Algeria displayed defensive solidity and discipline to keep Marc Wilmots’ team at bay.
However, it was Algeria that drew first blood. Completely against the run of play, Ghoulam’s teasing cross from the left was heading towards Sofiane Feghouli at the back post before Jan Vertonghen, struggling to get back goal-side, lazily bundled him over for a 24th minute penalty.
Feghouli, arguably his team’s stand out performer, was quickly on his feet and coolly converted the penalty to send the Algeria fans inside the Mineirao stadium into delirium.
That goal was a wake up call for the Belgians, and they quickly started to find their stride, zipping the ball around nicely in midfield. However,they never really troubled the Algerian back line in the first half with lone striker Romelu Lukaku cutting a frustrated figure as he lacked support of any real quality up top.
Jan Vertonghen tried to make amends for his earlier mistake late on in the half, but his driven free-kick that flew over the crossbar will probably be still rising long after the tournament has finished.
The half time interval saw Marc Wilmots make his first tactical change of the tournament, bringing on Napoli’s Dries Mertens for the ineffectual Nacer Chadli, in an attempt to add some more pace and penetration to the toothless attack we saw in the first half. However the second half began in the same vein, with Belgium controlling possession without causing Algeria any real problems, and the African outfit showcasing their disciplined defensive structure, gradually dispelling any notions that they will be the groups whipping boys.
By the 65th minute, Marc Wilmots had played all his cards, bringing on Manchester United’s bog-brush Doppelgänger Marouane Fellaini for Moussa Dembele and Origini for Lukaku. The final change to bring on Fellaini paid dividends immediately, with the big Belgian thundering a backwards header in off the underside of the crossbar following a delightful cross in from Kevin De Bruyne. With one whip of that Belgian Barnet the sides were back level, and the relief within Belgium’s ranks was palpable.
After the goal, the momentum was with Belgium, and they started to probe much further into Algeria’s half – Credit Wilmots for making the changes as Belgium immediately looked like more of a threat with Fellaini playing in the number 10 role and Mertens offering much more than his compatriot Chadli.
Belgium completed the comeback in the 79th minute, when another of Wilmot’s substitutes, Dries Mertens, fired in the second. The move started from a fantastic slide tackle deep in his own half by Kevin De Bruyne, and the crowd were treated to their first glimpse of the lightning fast counter attack Belgium hold in their repertoire. Hazard burst away from the Algerian midfield before sliding a lovely ball across to the unmarked Mertens in a 3v2 attacking situation, and the Napoli man fired an unerring finish past the oncoming goalkeeper.
Fellaini nearly added a 3rd minutes later with another towering header, but the Algeria keeper showed fabulous reactions to tip it over the bar.
Belgium held on for the final few minutes to seal their first win of the tournament, and go top of Group H. Ultimately it was an impressive start after a small hiccup in the first half, and the game highlighted Wilmots tactical guile as well as the character present in the Belgium team.