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Early Argentina, Dutch survive

Five Aside Jul 5, 2014
Read
 Posted by Wim van Walle
Jun 23, 2014

Lack of experience in attack a hindrance for Belgium

The ESPN FC panel weighs in on 19-year-old Divock Origi's match winner that put Belgium through to the round of 16.

If, as is often heard, football is a results business, Belgium's Red Devils' stock must be soaring. Two games into the World Cup, two wins, three goals scored and one penalty conceded -- and they didn't even need to play well to beat Algeria and Russia. They are through to the second round, with a real chance of winning the group in the final game against South Korea, the weakest team in Group H.

BelgiumBelgium
RussiaRussia
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ABC, ESPN3 FT
Match 31
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Others, however, want football to be entertaining. And Belgium haven't exactly dazzled. All three goals were scored by substitutes after the games had crept along at sleep-inducing 'pace.' Many commenting on that after the game against Algeria and hoped there would be some football against Russia, who were expected to allow more room for Belgium to play in.

Russia did leave more room, but any hopes of better football from Belgium soon proved futile. Dries Mertens ran at the Russian defence a number of times in the first 10 minutes, but after that the game petered out in a way you normally see in the last 20 minutes of a meaningless, end-of-season, midtable league game. Belgium's Royal Couple, who shared a box with FIFA president Sepp Blatter, must have been expecting a little more.

For Romelu Lukaku, once again, it wasn't a happy experience. He failed to make an impact and was subbed after less than an hour. As said before, it is hard for a striker to matter when none of his teammates make a run or risk an incisive pass, but more than that, Lukaku looked dejected. When he came off, he refused to shake coach Marc Wilmots' hand and kicked away a water bottle in disgust.

- Report: Belgian royals in Rio to watch Red Devils
- Duarte: How far can Belgium go?
- Tactics Board: Lukaku out of place

Toys out of the pram, but it is hard to blame Lukaku. The way Belgium played allowed both of Russia's central defenders to mark him tightly, and while you can argue that he could have done better, it will be very hard to back that up. Lukaku wasn't once reached, or even aimed for, in a promising position, such was the complete lack of spark from Belgium. Eden Hazard, one of the players who should be looked at to crack defenses and change games around, admitted as much on Monday, saying that for the first 80 minutes of Sunday's game he would award himself a score of only 2 out of 10 .

And it wasn't as though Divock Origi, who came on for Lukaku, changed the game around. The game changed only when Russia started believing they might get three points out of it. Twenty minutes from time, they started pressing forward, leaving some room for Belgium to finally play in.

Kevin Mirallas, who had come on for the fading Mertens, went close a couple of times before Hazard finally felt his time had come. He produced some mesmerizing dribbling before feeding the ball back for Origi to smash home. It was superb play from Hazard and a cool finish from the 19-year-old Origi. Mirallas came close to a flattering 2-0 as Belgium ended the game on a high, but this just isn't good enough from Belgium.

Eden Hazard and Belgium will look to sew up first place in Group H on Thursday.
Eden Hazard and Belgium will look to sew up first place in Group H on Thursday.

Or is it? Belgium have played both their games on the hottest moment of the day. These are not the best conditions to play their high-energy passing football. Wilmots has repeatedly said that the last 20 minutes are the most important in any game and has acted accordingly, making astute substitutions that have won Belgium both their games. Against Algeria, it was Marouane Fellaini and Mertens. On Sunday, Origi scored the winner and Mirallas was a constant threat for as long as he was on the pitch, running the Russian defence ragged. All four came off the bench, three with 30 minutes or less on the clock.

But while this can get you past Russia and Algeria, it's hard to see how Belgium could beat any of the bigger teams in this World Cup. This negative attitude would be punished by more effective teams such as Germany or the Netherlands. Belgium need a lot more urgency going forward.

The problem seems to be in attack. The Belgian defence is miserly and with goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who on Sunday reached his 100th clean sheet at just 22 years of age, they boast one of the best goalkeepers in the world. The main difference with the attack could well be experience: Defenders Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, Daniel Van Buyten and Jan Vertonghen's average age is 29.

This is almost six years' difference with the four attacking players who started the game: Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku. Belgium have the second-youngest squad in the Brazil, closely behind Ghana. But with Belgium, the mix is different: All the youngest players are up front.

At times, it looks like they have a hard time handling the pressure that comes with the fact that Belgium aren't underdogs this time. A lot is expected and much of it rests on very young shoulders. Sure, Origi is the youngest of the bunch, and he came on and scored. But then Origi is there only because Christian Benteke is injured and nothing was expected of him. While Lukaku seems to suffer from this pressure, some of it possibly self-inflicted, Origi plays more freely, knowing that just being there is the stuff of dreams, never mind actually playing and scoring.

Wilmots has some decisions to make ahead of the last game against South-Korea. Some of the starters in the first games will be rested. Some who haven't played yet, will get a chance. The biggest poser of all will be who starts up front. If Lukaku starts and the game develops in the same way as the previous two, his confidence might get a coup de grace. If he doesn't start, a young and hungry player such as Lukaku will be deeply hurt as well. Either way, Wilmots and his staff will need all their psychological skills to sort out the striker conundrum.

Wim van Walle

Wim Van Walle has contributed to ESPNFC since 2010. Back in 1980, his passion for football was decided by the teams of the day. And apparently it stuck. Three decades later, Van Walle is still as passionate about Belgium's Red Devils and Nottingham Forest.

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