Three Points: Belgium defeat Algeria
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- Three thoughts on Belgium's comeback from a goal down to win 2-1 in their 2014 World Cup opener against Algeria in Group H.
1. Belgium click through the gears to overcome slow start
It's 12 years since Belgium qualified for a major tournament, but given the talent in Marc Wilmots' side, they're one of the most talked-about teams in Brazil. Such expectations flattered, and talk of a golden generation appeared exaggerated on the evidence of their poor first-half performance against Algeria. Belgium looked shorn of ideas and inspiration. Expectations had cooled since Romelu Lukaku scored a brace in Zagreb to confirm qualification in October 2013, but then they'd become unrealistic, with some Belgians seriously talking about winning the World Cup.
Belgium have been on the rise since 2009 when they were ranked 62nd in the world. Their full quota of emerging talent hadn't fed into the first team, but their under-23s had put a marker down by reaching the semifinals of the 2008 Olympics. Belgium failed to qualify for South Africa 2010 and even Euro 2012, but by 2013 they were ranked 15th in the world. After World Cup qualification in which they won eight of their 12 qualifiers (only Germany and Netherlands won more) they rose to 10th.
Wilmots' men conceded four goals in qualifying -- a record bettered only by Spain. In midfield alone he could choose from Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel, Kevin Mirallas, Kevin De Bruyne and Moussa Dembele behind their usual lone striker. The poor club form of Thomas Vermaelen and Marouane Fellaini saw them start on the bench Tuesday, but those players chosen ahead of them faltered in the first period.
Favourites to qualify from a modest group with Algeria, Russia and South Korea, the status looked questionable until substitute Fellaini's 70th-minute headed equaliser from a De Bruyne cross. It was a sweet moment for the midfielder after a poor season at Manchester United. With Belgium surging forward during a 79th-minute counterattack, Hazard, previously a frustrated creator, passed the ball across to substitute Dries Mertens who rifled a shot past Algeria goalkeeper Rais M'Bolhi for a winner. After a tough start, a worthy three points were claimed as Belgium came good.
2. Lukaku fails to translate his club momentum
Had Belgium lost a striker of Christian Benteke's quality five years ago they would have been unable to replace him with a player of similar skill. Now, Belgium's elite footballers are numerous, and they boasted Romelu Lukaku, 21, in reserve. He'd scored 17 Premier League goals at mid-table West Bromwich Albion in 2012-13. With pace and impressive strength, the forward fit Belgium's young, fresh and exciting profile.
Lukaku arrived in Brazil after an excellent season with Everton, though it hadn't started well as Blues boss Jose Mourinho quickly got rid of the striker at Chelsea, sending him out on loan to Goodison Park. Mourinho goes for people before players, and if you don't fit into his plans, you don't last long. In the space of two weeks in August, Lukaku missed a penalty in the European Super Cup final.
When Lukaku asked to leave, Chelsea's manager was happy to let him go. Everton, who had tried to sign Demba Ba, couldn't believe their luck when they were instead offered Lukaku. The Belgian thrived under Toffees manager Roberto Martinez, and he was equally adept in his national team, scoring twice against Croatia away to confirm qualification -- but there was none of that sharpness present in Belo Horizonte.
If Belgium were disappointing in the first period, Lukaku was worse. He barely kicked the ball and didn't touch it once in the opposition area. There was little surprise as he was substituted for Divock Origi on 58 minutes, and much better will be needed from Belgium's lone striker if they're to excel.
With Lukaku gone, Belgium improved, putting pressure on the Algerian defence. They couldn't find a way through until the familiar head of substitute Fellaini equalised after 70 minutes. Wilmots had opined to FIFA.com that "half our winning goals in the qualifiers were netted by substitutes," adding: "I tend to focus just as much on those that aren't playing. I want my substitutes to show the same level of desire as the starters."
He was right. For the failures of Lukaku, his two substitutes saved the day with superb finishes.
3. Defeat, but Algeria end their World Cup goal drought
Algeria needed to score in the first 36 minutes to avoid the ignominy of breaking Bolivia's 517-minute record without a World Cup goal. Algeria were not expected to score against the clearly favoured Belgium with their attack-minded lineup, but in the 23th minute they were awarded a penalty after Jan Vertonghen pulled back Sofiane Feghouli. It was their first penalty in 10 World Cup matches, spanning three tournaments.
If the celebrations of the estimated 5,000 Algerian fans (twice as many as Belgium) stood together on the Mineirao's upper tier were impressive, they paled when compared to their players when Feghouli, who has been one of La Liga's best wingers, sent his spot kick past Thibaut Courtois. Several Algerians ran to the corner flag and got down on their hands and knees. As others came to join them, they sprinted to the Algeria bench. They could be forgiven for celebrating their first goal since Mexico '86. So far, so brilliant for the team in white.
The prematch focus had been on the favourites, yet while Algeria's team didn't contain the star names of Belgium, they have players like Valencia forward Feghouli and Inter Milan's Saphir Taider, whose international career started in France where he played up to under-20 level. Algeria have more French-born players than Algerian-born in their squad, and they're reaping the benefit of the country's long-standing migration to Europe, with its footballing academies.
Algeria missed out on Zinedine Zidane, Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri, but there's talent in their squad, and their coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, knows how to use it. Their disciplined game worked against the Belgians, and their goal was more than they achieved in the 2010 World Cup. Defeat hurt, but credit was due as their fans finished the day in as good voice as they'd started and applauded their team off the pitch.