World Cup Day 11: Thoughts On Belgium’s Victory Over Russia

1) With all three of their goals coming in the final 20 minutes of games (70′ and 80′ against Algeria, 88′ most recently versus Russia), and all of which either tied or won a contest, Belgium has made a habit of springing to life late during the World Cup within the last week. Whether the additional pressure playing as the clear favorite when the game winds down proves stimulating–which seems unlikely, as the scarcity of WC experience on the roster would only indicate a poor reaction to facing a deficit/deadlock late–or culminations of game-long offensive attacks and possession advantage, the Red Devils have thrived like no other squad in last-gasp opportunities. Just as the rest of soccer world settles on writing off this rising European power, as talent-packed as its continental contemporaries, and decries the team for its overrated label, Belgium strikes–often following an extensive, dispiriting lull in the game–and emerges victorious, to where it’s now clinched a second round berth with six points in Group H. Such a naturally-developed tendency has worked to the their favor in perhaps the weakest group in the tournament, but the Belgians will have to start much more sharply once commencing play in the knockout rounds. There were signs of this kind of effort to begin forcefully in the early-going during the game against Russia, but those ended in vain, as Belgium couldn’t not sustain their attacks towards goal until they resurfaced late in the second half.

2) It was a given that Chelsea playmaker Eden Hazard would make an impact in Brazil, but it wasn’t until Sunday that he truly made his mark–and in typical 2014 WC-Belgium fashion, doing so as the game reached the final whistle. As the Red Devils pushed animatedly for an elusive go-ahead score, Hazard was right in the middle of the action, his creativity shining amid solo runs and productively slick distribution to his teammates. As the game progressed, his touch and ability to weave through the opposing defense became more refined and noticeable. The midfielder set up several chances–ones that his fellow Belgians should have undoubtedly better capitalized on–before finally exhibiting his best run with two minutes left in regulation, with Hazard’s pass finding 19-year old substitute Divock Origi, who had enough room to comfortably power home the winner.

3) Finally, Belgian manager Marc Wilmots has continued to display a magic touch in managing and tinkering with his squad, another one of his substitution decisions paying major dividends late in the game: after he sent Origi onto the field on the 57th minute, the young striker scored 31 minutes later to give Belgium a thrilling 1-0 victory. Wilmots’s other two subs helped the cause as well, providing fresh legs and buffering the team’s offensive drives. And while the Red Devils shouldn’t rely on this golden touch (a lucky one for the most part, unless he’s in the midst of revealing his unheralded coaching genius) in future games as much as on their performance on the field–which alone should carry the team far–it’s quite reassuring to have a coach that can positively effect the course of the game like Wilmots, based on his knowledge and feel for a squad that has lately experienced some chemistry issues.

World Cup Day 6: Belgium vs. Algeria Analysis

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 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 

Fellaini (8) and Mertens (14) scored both of Belgium's goals as substitutes. (Reuters)

Fellaini (8) and Mertens (14) scored both of Belgium’s goals as substitutes. (Reuters)

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.