Wilmots tops Capello, but both fight on
That's the problem. We've been spoiled.
At roughly the halfway mark, this World Cup has already produced so many comebacks, humdingers and edge-of-seat turnarounds that we've quickly become somewhat blasé.
It's sort of like after "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" ended and you had to shift to the Sorkinism of "The Newsroom." It wasn't good, but it looked a lot worse than it was because of the brilliance that came before.
Belgium and Russia went into this game with different approaches and objectives. For 88 minutes, Russia got what they wanted. They frustrated Belgium, drove their attackers into harmless positions and picked their spots to create chances. And then, because quality matters and you can't really legislate against it, Eden Hazard toppled the Russian bear with a quicksilver counter that set up Divock Origi's late, late winner.
Russia boss Fabio Capello was bullish postmatch, saying: "I'm very happy with the way we played. The result was unfair, but we have to accept it."
His counterpart, Marc Wilmots, was unfazed when it was pointed out to him that, in their two World Cup outings, Belgium had failed to score before the 70th minute and that all three of their goals had been notched by a substitute.
"But our substitutes are part of the team. You have to look at matters as a whole," he said, with a scowl spreading across his face as it did in his playing days, when he was known as the "Battle Pig." "The truth is that if you're a substitute, you're not happy, but when you come on, you are totally dedicated to work hard. And in that sense, we are lucky that we can count on substitutes of that quality."
Maybe so, yet these past two games -- while yielding six points -- have shone the spotlight on the team's shortcomings. If Wilmots had been entirely happy with the Rode Duivels after the first outing, a 2-1 win vs. Algeria, he probably wouldn't have made three changes from one match to the next: Marouane Fellaini for Mousa Dembele, Dries Mertens for Nacer Chadli and Thomas Vermaelen for Jan Vertonghen.
As it happened for much of this game at the Maracana, Belgium's personnel wasn't the problem as much as the formation. Capello pulled the youthful Maksim Kanunnikov out of his fur hat, and the Rubin Kazan forward, making only his third appearance for the national team, gamely led Russia's pressing in midfield, helped by Aleksandr Kokorin and Oleg Shatov.
Rather than bypassing it by dropping another passer deep to help out Axel Witsel, allowing the full-backs to push on or simply going over the top (where, to be fair, Romelu Lukaku was stuck between Vasili Berezutski and Sergei Ignashevich, the twin pillars of the Russian defence), Belgium tried to play through it, with little success, apart from some early Mertens scampers.
Meanwhile, when Russia broke, it was with purpose and danger. Tobias Alderweireld might have conceded a penalty with a stricter referee when he cleared the ball -- and Kakunnikov's foot -- at the half-hour mark.
Shortly thereafter, Kokorin broke into space against only the two centre backs, Vincent Kompany and Daniel Van Buyten. He was always going to take one of them on, but which one? He opted for Kompany -- the more athletic of the two -- perhaps hoping to take advantage of the element of surprise or maybe thinking that, if he could beat the Manchester City skipper, Van Buyten would be a cakewalk. Instead, Kompany just nicked the ball away, denying Kokorin a clear run on Thibaut Courtois.
Then it was a mix-up between Kompany and Vertonghen (on for Vermaelen, who appeared to pull a muscle chasing the speedy Aleksandr Samedov) that gave Kokorin the freest of headers, which he duly sent wide.
As the half ended, Capello stood with arms folded and his back as straight as a mannequin while Wilmots looked like a man who had decided he'd give it another few minutes and then call on his bench.
Which is precisely what he did. Off came Lukaku, who never escaped the grasp of his twin markers, and on came Origi. The big man wasn't pleased, but Wilmots brushed it off afterward. "I haven't talked to [Lukaku], but I'm not surprised he's unhappy at coming off. Nobody likes being substituted," he said. "The truth is that he hardly saw the ball and [Origi] gave us something different."
Belgium gained pace and lost power. It was clear they weren't going to bash their way into this Russian defence, so they switched to finesse a path and bolt through it.
Except Hazard was AWOL, Witsel was exhausted, Kevin De Bruyne was stuck in Denis Glushakov's blind alley, and Mertens was beginning to fade; he'd soon be replaced by Kevin Mirallas.
The Brazilians in the crowd struck up a song suggesting this belonged in the "segunda divisao" -- the second tier. It was harsh but funny, not that these two sides cared.
Wilmots' crew began defending deeper, perhaps figuring that a draw in these circumstances wasn't such a bad result.
"That's when I decided to go for the win," Capello said.
He put on Alan Dzagoev, the ubertalented if inconsistent CSKA virtuoso, to act as a kind of human can opener for the Belgian defence. Capello reasoned afterward: "We were all at the edge of their box, and there were plenty of bodies between us and the goal. Dzagoev is the kind of player who can invent a last pass or a moment of skill in that situation."
Of course, every action has an opposite reaction, and every gamble has a downside. Suddenly, Belgium had space on the counterattack. More importantly, Hazard awoke from his slumber. In rapid succession, Mirallas hit the post from a free-kick and Hazard conjured up a show-reel pirouette to create space before smacking a shot just wide.
It was the prelude to a goal, and it came, as you'd expect, on the break. Hazard accelerated into space, tucked inside almost to the end line and cut it back for the trailing Origi, who beat Igor Akinfeev.
"I would not have even taken Origi to this World Cup had it not been for Christian Benteke's injury," Wilmots said. "But now he's here, and he's contributing with his pace, his discipline and his intelligence."
Six months ago, Origi was an 18-year-old reserve striker at Lille who had scored a grand total of one goal in his Ligue 1 career. Now he was saving his country and propelling it to a spot in the knockout round.
Brilliant substitution or a healthy dose of luck? You tend to lean toward the latter.
"We didn't play well at all until the last 10 minutes," said Hazard. "It was a complicated game for us. The Russians played well, though maybe at the end they began to tire and that gave us space for the counter."
Expect more changes from Wilmots in the third game. "We have to take into account fatigue and players on a yellow card," he said. "It's a long tournament. We want to get stronger as it goes on." Most important, perhaps, is figuring out the conundrum of why his team plays only in spurts.
As for Russia, Capello waxed philosophical.
"In the first half, we created more chances than they did, mostly on the counter," he said. "In the second, we dominated the pitch, until the last few minutes. Shame about the result, but we still control our destiny. If we beat Algeria, we'll be OK."
Two managers putting on a brave face -- one for the performance, one for the result. But also two men who know they live to fight another day.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.