For Belgium, winning is all that matters
"Did you expect us to win 4- or 5-0?" manager Marc Wilmots asked with incredulity after his Belgium side defeated Algeria 2-1 in their World Cup opener and the reaction was disappointment.
After all the pretournament hype, there were no fireworks from Belgium, no flamboyance, no flair. Instead, they fell behind to Algeria and appeared in trouble until late. Except for the goal Belgium allowed-- a penalty given away by Jan Vertonghen -- this had all been part of a grand plan, Wilmots reassured the assembled press in Belo Horizonte.
Belgium's intention was to play rope-a-dope. All their sterile possession did have a purpose after all.
"We had a precise scenario in mind," Wilmots explained. "A victory built over 90 minutes. We learned the importance of patience in our warm-up match against Tunisia [a 1-0 triumph sealed at the death]. ...The starting point was to make the Algerians run as much as possible until their energy levels ran out. After that, I knew we had the men on the bench to make the difference. At halftime the players were a bit down, but I said: 'Don't worry, we will score and totally change the match.'"
Belgium switched from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2. Wilmots introduced Marouane Fellaini and Divock Origi, who formed quite an original strike partnership. Tall and physical, the strategy was to exploit their height with crosses into the box. Dries Mertens also came on to give Belgium more incisiveness from wide areas. And the changes worked a treat. Fellaini equalised with a header. Mertens got the winner. Wilmots gave the impression he was a tactical genius. Not everyone saw it that way, however.
At that stage of the competition, a talented Algeria team were still much underestimated. People only began to stand up and take note of them after they blitzed South Korea 4-2 in their next game. That made the result Belgium got against Algeria look a little better.
"They are 22 in the world rankings, you know," Wilmots pointed out, the highest among the African nations in Brazil. He found the criticism of the win -- it was only Algeria -- perplexing.
"Do you realise where we are now? It's a World Cup. There are no weak teams," he added.
The prevailing sense is that in light of Belgium receiving the billing as dark horse before the tournament, it has been forgotten along the way that this is their first World Cup in 12 years. Only one player in their ranks, veteran Daniel van Buyten, has been to one before.
It's also worth highlighting that their 23-man squad is the third-youngest in Brazil. People should be realistic. And yet expectations of Belgium are so high.
It was said once more, after they edged Russia 1-0, that the team hadn't convinced.
Aleksandr Kokorin missed a glorious chance for Russia. Teammate Maksim Kanunnikov should perhaps have had a penalty, and after an apparent foul against him didn't get called, Belgium scored in the 88th minute with only their second shot on target. Better finishing from Russia might have punished the Diables Rouges. Romelu Lukaku struggled again, emphasizing how Belgium miss the injured Christian Benteke, but Origi came off the bench and got the winner after one of the few flashes of brilliance from star Eden Hazard.
U.S. vs. Belgium: Tuesday, 4 ET (ESPN and WatchESPN)
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Even though that result qualified his side for the knockout stage, Wilmots was forced to defend his team's performance. "You have to be patient with them," he said.
Able to make five changes for the final group game against South Korea, Wilmots could afford the luxury of resting Hazard, captain Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen, and the manager chose not to risk the likes of Axel Witsel and Toby Alderweireld, both one yellow card away from a suspension. Still, Belgium grinded out another 1-0 win even though they went down to 10 men with the score 0-0 and had to play an entire half with a numerical disadvantage after Steven Defour's sending off.
"To advance in a major tournament, you don't have to play good football. You only have to be effective," insisted Wilmots. And Belgium have been just that.
In all, they have led their opponents for just 25 minutes going into stoppage time, taking a perfect nine points from nine. Considering the major question mark about Belgium before the tournament was a perceived lack of experience at competitions like this, Wilmots is justified in his remark that "we have shown a lot of maturity for quite a young team."
Critics can sniff at the calibre of opposition in their group, but Belgium showed great character and resolve. They went behind against Algeria, didn't panic, played patiently and came back to claim victory. They rode things out against Russia, and rather than settle for a draw, they kept looking for a winner and eventually found one, as they did when it was 10 vs. 11 against South Korea. Other, less together teams, would have crumbled in the face of similarly difficult in-game situations. That Belgium didn't crumble, even against supposedly modest adversaries, shouldn't be taken for granted.
Adaptable, with a Plan B, they have shown an ability to suffer, dig deep and come through the other side. Their defence, though often considered an area of weakness because of its lack of natural full-backs, has kept the team in games and has gone 259 minutes without conceding.
But Belgium's depth has been the hallmark of their campaign thus far: Three of their four goals have come from substitutes. The presence of game-changers on the bench has so far covered for the lacklustre performances of Hazard and Lukaku. That they haven't managed to take over a game yet and bend it to their will would be a concern if Belgium hadn't found other ways to win. Instead, any explosion of theirs will be a bonus.
Now, they prepare for their last-16 clash with manager Jürgen Klinsmann's spirited USA side in Salvador on Tuesday. "It's 50-50," Wilmots said, "even if we are considered favourites."
But Belgium are quite content to keep winning ugly. "Play more beautiful? What does that mean?" he asked. "What matters is winning, going through. We are at a World Cup. If you make the slightest mistake, you pay for it. You are not there to watch the others. We're going into the last 16 with the desire of making the quarters. The rest is literature."
And for a pragmatist like Wilmots, the only thing that makes good reading is a Belgium win.
James contributes to ESPN FC, Guardian Football Weekly, FourFourTwo and The Blizzard. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.