Belgium back to basics in nervous win
Belgium's first game left their fans relieved rather than ecstatic. After a dire first half, the Red Devils came good when Marc Wilmots made some changes. Dries Mertens, Belgium's super sub, provided the width that was so lacking in the first half and scored the winner in the end, but it was Marouane Fellaini who really cracked things open when he headed home a great equalizer. Sofiane Feghouli's first-half penalty had given Algeria a 1-0 lead.
The game certainly didn't go according to plan. Algeria kept almost their entire team behind the ball at all times and stifled Belgium's usual fluent passing. There was lots of possession, but it was impossible to make it count with a double wall of white shirts effectively killing the game.
Some of Wilmots' decisions didn't help. We explained earlier why Fellaini seemed like a better choice to start this game than Moussa Dembele. Fabulously gifted and technical, Dembele also often slows play down. That showed in the first half and wasn't helped by Kevin De Bruyne, Nacer Chadli and Eden Hazard all drifting into the centre, thereby further congesting play and giving Algeria exactly what they wanted. Belgium monopolized the ball but lacked pace and movement. They created nothing and never looked like the team we know they can be.
The defending for the penalty looked decidedly suspect. Vincent Kompany shaped up to intercept a dangerous cross and then bizarrely and unexpectedly decided to leave it. Jan Vertonghen, who had expected his captain to deal with the cross, was on the back foot. He panicked and brought Feghouli down. It merely illustrated how ill at ease Belgium were.
What's worse, it failed to sting them. They continued stroking the ball around, albeit at a slightly higher pace. There wasn't any pressure, however, and the only brief spark came when Hazard cut into the penalty area, expecting Chadli to complete the one-two. Chadli failed to understand and fired a weak shot into Rais M'Bolhi.
Belgium went into halftime looking like a limp horse rather than a dark one, and it was a relief to see Mertens warming up during the break. On for Chadli, he soon demonstrated what had been lacking, hugged his line and finally gave the game some air to breathe. Hazard followed his lead, and De Bruyne, who had been abysmal thus far, slotted into his preferred central role. Slowly the game changed, as Belgium played the way they should have started.
Some corners and free kicks followed, but one key ingredient was still missing. Many had hoped Fellaini would start today, as he seemed a better weapon to ruffle up and dislocate a tight defence such as that of Algeria. He proved that point when he finally came on. With Mertens and Hazard now providing width, Fellaini played havoc with Algeria's defenders by drawing them all over the place and leaving gaps for passes to be played into. De Bruyne finally found room for a decent cross, and Fellaini rose to head home for 1-1.
Ten minutes later, Belgium hit Algeria on the break. Hazard found Mertens in acres of space, and the little Napoli man drove home a thumping finish -- 2-1 Belgium -- and Algeria now looked completely beaten. The Red Devils suddenly looked like the team they were in qualification. There was good, fast-flowing football, and Fellaini could have easily gotten another goal. This finally was the style and confidence we have come to expect.
Belgium earned their first three points in this World Cup the hard way. Maybe that is a good thing. If this game had been easy, such a young group could have lost their focus. But they have been firmly reminded that this is serious. No one here will roll over and play dead while Belgium's finest walk all over them. Nonetheless, they showed they can handle a setback, and they might need to do so again.
Fellaini looks to be in fine form. Widely ridiculed for his season at Manchester United, he showed what he can do when deployed in the right position. Wilmots defended his player after the season and said David Moyes never played him correctly. He was spectacularly proven right. Fellaini didn't suddenly turn into a bad player over the summer of 2013, and the summer of 2014 might well show him to be worth every penny of that hefty transfer fee.
Wilmots must look at today's game and what went wrong. Belgium need room to play their football. If opponents try to tighten play, the wide men must be exactly that: wide. Hazard is at his most dangerous when he sticks to that wide position then suddenly bursts inside. The same applies on the right, where Mertens might well get a start against Russia. This creates room for De Bruyne and Fellaini to support and feed Romelu Lukaku.
That is the football that got Belgium to Brazil and the type of play the fans expect too. There are good omens. This game saw two things happen for the first time in many years. First, there was an Algerian World Cup goal. Then there was a Belgian come-back from a goal down. Neither has happened since 1986, when Belgium reached the semifinals.