Difficulties for the darkhorse
Aspirations of succeeding on the World Cup stage–capitalizing on an uncomplicated route to the quarterfinals–and cementing its status as a rising European superpower go hand in hand for Belgium during this tournament. Yet for all their purported attacking prowess, and European club renown and experience, the Red Devils came out of the gates as lethargic and lifeless as one could imagine. Perhaps even more unsettling, the first half of play featured an utterly glaring lack of chemistry between the Belgian players. Simple ball movement governed the team’s pace of play–eventually totaling an eye-popping 616 passes by game’s end, 537 of which were short passes–as well as a fixation on maintaining possession, as the team’s 67.1% (per WhoScored.com) in this category currently ranks them third best in the WC. Yet this philosophy produced no results, as futile offensive efforts snapped prior to the ball even grazing Algeria’s goalie box. Pushes originated in the back line, and often reached the midfield third of the pitch, but Belgium could not find, much less create, openings in a stout Algerian defense, precluding even a basic touch on the ball by forward Romelu Lukaku. Moreover, it appeared that the players had little understanding of each other’s styles of touch and tendencies–it was as if they were exchanging passes with players with which they were unacquainted. Belgium’s first shot on goal–by Axel Witsel–only came on the 21st minute. The midfielder, and one of the few Belgian players to express assertiveness with the ball at his feet during the first 45 minutes, also fired away again on the 34th minute, thus contributing for Belgium’s two best shots on target.
Algeria’s deserved lead
Unlike their counterparts, the Fennec Foxes emerged from the tunnel with authority to commence the first half of action. Expected to do nothing more than serve as a thorn in their Group H competitors’ sides, the Algerians played with a free spirit and a reckless abandon, certainly catching a sluggish Belgian squad by surprise. Regardless of Belgium’s domination of possession, Algeria prevented its opponent from even penetrating the goalie box for the better part of the opening half, with the Belgians first doing so at around the 32nd minute. As a result, it revealed a lot of positives about Algeria’s defensive resoluteness, which in general embodied the entire team’s grit and energy. Thus, when the Algerians earned a penalty and converted it, the team more than deserved to grab this one-goal advantage on the 25th minute; the score was a rightful product of Algeria starting the game with a different and higher level of vigor and liveliness than the inert Belgians.
Breakthrough for the Belgians
Hardly playing differently from their previous 70 listless minutes, Belgium finally–and surprisingly, resulting from an offensive push where players inexplicably stood motionless for the most part–stuck on the 70th minute from a Kevin De Bruyne lob into the goalmouth that landed in the path of a leaping Marouane Fellaini, who had just entered the game as a sub five minutes earlier. Height advantage certainly aided the 6’4” Fellaini in the situation, but it was more of a fortunate bounce than anything, as the midfielder headed the ball with the back of his head and steered it towards an unreachable spot on the goal frame.
10 minutes after breaking through with an equalizer, the Red Devils staged a fantastic counterattack, initiating from a tackle in the midfield. With stellar spacing–better than when the Belgians methodically paced upfield, and for that matter, did so in vain on attack–Dries Mertens opened up with a clear look on net within the goalie box, and powered through the go-ahead score. Yet another sub that has scored, who entered the game during halftime, Mertens’s performance–in conjunction with that of fellow substitute Fellaini–will force manager Marc Wilmots to rethink the original lineup mixture he sent out on the field; both Mertens and Fellaini invigorated the Belgian offense, and in all honesty, should have started from the opening whistle.
Belgium can now move on from this disconcerting and unstable opening WC display, as after anxiously escaping a match against Algeria with a once-unlikely victory, any lineup mistakes Wilmots made are surely reparable going into the team’s final two group stage matches–especially with this talent-laden roster capable of a much better quality of all-around play and offensive firepower.