Bosnia-Herzegovina earn draw against Belgians, but squad depth a concern
ZENICA, Bosnia and Herzegovina -- The mood inside Bilino Polje had been quite different 367 days previously. When a ball flashed past Asmir Begovic then, it was sent by Liechtenstein's Nicolas Hasler, with Bosnia and Herzegovina already four goals up and the same number of days away from a World Cup qualification that by this stage seemed driven by providence.
That night, no concession could abate the din, the chants, the anthems. On Monday evening, the opposite was true. While things had been boisterous enough after Edin Dzeko's thundering first-half opener against Belgium, the sight of Begovic fumbling a routine shot from Radja Nainggolan into the net five minutes after half-time elicited a gasp followed by near-total silence. It was a quarter of an hour until anyone really roused themselves. After the hype, the self-doubt and the comedown -- one that the Bosnian team has been going through ever since its first couple of minutes in Brazil.
Belgium were timely visitors to Zenica, particularly for seekers of post-summer narrative. If the made-to-measure tale was that Bosnia, defeated unthinkably by Cyprus on home turf the previous month and little better than moderate in drawing against Wales last week, were sliding irreversibly from a giddy peak then a health-check on Marc Wilmots' side looked appropriate too.
They hit six past Andorra last Friday, but Belgium had been under pressure after a World Cup campaign that, while ending without shame against Argentina in the last eight, had been disappointingly laboured in large parts. A Euro 2016 group of little stand-out interest did, at least, put together two sides that were having to see what comes after euphoria.
There was little in Zenica to divert from cold, hard reality. The storyline looked safe early on when, time and again, a Belgian side spearheaded by both Romelu Lukaku and Divock Origi -- although the latter would later move out to the right -- outdid Bosnia on the counter. Toni Sunjic denied Origi at the last shortly after the start; Begovic would save sharply from the same player's flick and then, with his legs, from an Eden Hazard drive. Nine minutes had not yet passed and a patched-up Bosnian defence, missing the captain Emir Spahic and the Bundesliga pair Ermin Bicakcic and Sead Kolasinac, seemed in for another long night.
Belgium are a more fluid side when Steven Defour, underused in Brazil, is recycling the ball with accuracy and he formed a mobile midfield pair with Nainggolan, who did not even make the World Cup squad. But their early threat fizzled out and when Dzeko scored in the 28th minute it came after Bosnia had gained a foothold. Miralem Pjanic had begun drifting into dangerous pockets from a rather limiting starting position on the right of a diamond, and he popped up on the left to cut back for Dzeko, whose finishing is remorseless in the blue of his country. The carefree scenes of 2013 were, just for a little while, back in view.
Begovic would be called upon three more times before the break, notably from Lukaku and, in a harbinger for what would follow, spilling a wickedly swerving Defour shot. That was not the only signpost for Belgium's equaliser, as they came out for the second half as quickly as they had the first. The surprise was that they were unable to push on and win. Lukaku, only sporadically involved, was replaced by Dries Mertens and that began a chaotic, end-to-end sequence that saw the substitute given space to run at an exposed defence at will while, at the other end, Pjanic was denied after nicking the ball around by Thibaut Courtois and Dzeko's hanging, powerful header was tipped over by the Chelsea keeper. Before the end, Mertens curled one last chance inches wide, but both sides spent the final few minutes in evident satisfaction with 1-1.
"It's a transition and it's going to take a bit of time," Begovic told ESPN FC after the game, with reference to a much-changed squad that has also lost the maverick talent of Zvjezdan Misimovic, who has retired from international football. "But the younger guys, and everyone else who has stepped up, have done really well and taken their opportunity. So things are looking pretty good for us."
Begovic has room for optimism in the form of Everton's Muhamed Besic, the feisty midfielder whose name was nowhere to be seen on replica shirts a year ago but is now third only to those of Dzeko and Pjanic. Besic's rawness reared its head on occasion, but he has a presence on and off the ball that other newcomers or fringe players such as Tino-Sven Susic and Edin Visca lack.
Besic enjoyed a superb second half, covering swiftly -- and sometimes ferociously -- to nip those Belgian counters in the bud. Mertens and Origi were crunched into within minutes of each other as the clock ran down, the latter receiving a long, hard glare to boot; Besic spent a gap in first-half play geeing up the Zenica crowd, too. The big concern is that Bosnia's ultra-stretched squad -- whose substitutes included several players from the domestic league -- lacks characters and quality beyond the star names; in 22-year-old Besic, at least, they have both.
Belgium have no such problem with depth but Monday night answered few questions about its use. Hazard looked likely to make hay against Mensur Mujdza out on the left early on, but his performance dropped markedly and he was a peripheral figure long before the end. Lukaku continues to perplex, possibly looking more effective in the short spell he and Origi spent alongside one another, while the promise of Origi's runs is mitigated against by end product that is still marked 'work in progress'. Kevin de Bruyne, who had a hand in Nainggolan's goal, was again their most incisive attacking player and the snappier pace of their passing was real -- but Belgium, for all their resources, still look a tad short of a top team.
"Overall it's a good point," continued Begovic -- who accepted that the equaliser was "Just my fault", although the ball did visibly bobble. "We felt we played well and hopefully it will be a good point for us in the future.
"A top-two place is very much on for us. If we play like we have in the past couple of days I don't see why we can't qualify. I think this group is going to go to the tenth match -- everyone can beat everyone and we've put ourselves back in the game now. I think if we get a result next month [in Israel] we can really kick on."
The if is important: Bosnia are already five points behind the Israelis having played a game more. You fear for them slightly. You wonder, for one thing, whether Safet Susic's management -- which always seemed slightly haphazard in accommodating their attacking talents -- can mould a winning unit now that options are beginning to wane. Like the Belgians, they were well worth their point in Zenica; unlike the Belgians, you have the impression that they were operating at full stretch.
October 2013 may need to be held close for a while yet.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.