Subs save Belgium once again
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Here are three reactions to Belgium's late 1-0 win over Russia in Group H.
1. Belgium not living up to the hype
At the very least, Belgium have done the hardest part. They are not the typically hobbled dark horse; they have made it through to the second round with a 1-0 win over Russia and can just about banish any accusations of bottling this first World Cup in 12 years.
At the same time, they made rather hard work of it -- more than they should have even in the context of a competitive Russian side.
For the moment, that will fade. On seeing Belgium's evident joy in saluting their fans, it was easy to forget that this was a rather joyless game. Similarly, progress to the second round makes it easy to forget this side still has a few problems.
Yet this victory was somewhat unconvincing and a little underwhelming. Belgium follow the rest of the pre-tournament favourites -- Brazil, Argentina, Germany and of course eliminated Spain -- in not yet living up to their billing.
Of course, it is something that adapts another dimension with Marc Wilmots' side given that there was so much debate about how good Belgium are. It's still genuinely difficult to tell. The talent and moments are there; the cohesion and rounded performances are not. Wilmots has work to do to make this team as good as it can be.
2. The goal doesn't gloss over the cracks
He didn't exactly express himself on the pitch, but Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku more than expressed his feelings on Wilmots. Having been taken off for the second game in a row, after enjoying only two touches in the opposition box throughout the World Cup so far, the Chelsea forward -- who is angling for a move this summer -- visibly let loose on his international manager with a series of expletives.
It said much that it took a substitution to bring out that kind of emotion. While Lukaku may face some internal discipline for his actions, there is a fair argument that Wilmots is stifling this genuinely talented group. Belgium still look like a disparate collection of individuals rather than a true team. The players simply do not fit together well, which lessens their impact and makes for some badly disjointed football.
While many may justifiably look to Lukaku's limited touches as evidence for why he has not been in Chelsea's plans, he wasn't exactly getting the service he needs. Eden Hazard was initially isolated, and everyone else just tried to do his own thing. Dries Mertens at least attempted to make things happen with his pace, but he didn't add precision. At this point, it's hard to say whether that was down to his poor decisions or the fact there wasn't enough movement to provide a better option. Kevin De Bruyne did drive things but increasingly encountered the same problem. Meanwhile, Marouane Fellaini's roaming left De Bruyne a little exposed, and there was no support from the full-backs.
From all that, it was impossible to escape the feeling that a different manager could have offered a more cohesive and fluid system for this team. Instead, Wilmots followed the line of England's Roy Hodgson in simply placing some lively talent in a flat 4-2-3-1.
That is not to say the Belgian manager is completely without credit. He has at least shown a capacity to rectify situations and could even claim a degree of vindication given that it was substitute Divock Origi -- Lukaku's replacement -- who got the goal. But even that, however, required one of the individuals to break free of his constraints.
Wilmots is going to have to do similar in the long term to really make this side do something.
3. Capello under scrutiny
For a time, it seemed like this was typical Fabio Capello. It's difficult to ignore that he has taken some of the zip out of Russia, yet for extended periods it was the Italian's side that was offering the most cutting breaks. Russia were the ones moving the ball around more sleekly on the flanks, and they enjoyed the game's best chances until a final Belgium rally.
Indeed, it could have been a completely different game had Alexander Kokorin headed his first-half effort in or had Andrey Eschenko's effort gone to the other side of the post. The fact it came down to such margins, though, illustrates that Capello's inherent conservatism is still a bit too reductive. It has reduced him to relying on favours from elsewhere.