World cup dark horse Belgium kicked off their World Cup campaign with a mixed-bag performance, but still earned all three points as they defeated Algeria 2-1. Goals from Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens, both second half substitutes, negatived Algeria’s 1-0 first half lead through Sofiane Feghouli.
Nerves seemed to have gotten to the European upstarts, but they did so well to settle in the second half after a first half display left many questioning the validity of their chances in Brazil. But like the United States last night, three points are three points and Belgium will certainly build on this performance as well as potentially shake up their starting XI. Here now is your review.
Belgium: Thibaut Courtois; Jan Vertonghen, Daniel van Buyten, Vincent Kompany; Toby Alderweireld; Axeil Witsel, Mousa Dembele; Kevin De Bruyne; Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Nacer Chadli
Algeria: Rais Mbolhi; Faouzi Ghoulam, Rafik Halliche, Madjid Bougherra, Carl Medjani; Mehdi Mostefa; Riyad Mahrez, Nabil Bentaleb, Saphir Taider, Sofiane Feghouli; El Arbi Hillel Soudani
Despite so many coming to see Belgium, it was Algeria that started brightest of the two. Very comfortable on the ball early but also very aggressive in the defensive third, ruthlessly seeking out to nip any attack before Belgium could truly get one organized. For all their talent, Belgium looked to have been prepared to play counter-attacking football rather than possession.
Once the match settled down however, Belgium began to wrestle longer spells of possession away from Algeria. But in the first 15minutes, Belgium created next to nothing in the final third of the pitch. Whether it was nerves, Algeria’s willingness to work to pressure Belgium or their organized defense, the Rode Duivels offered very little on the whole. Zenit St.Petersburg midfielder Axel Witsel tried to produce a moment of magic, when his stinging drive from beyond 25-yards was put on frame, but it was fisted away by Mbolhi.
The 23rd minute would see Jan Vertonghen bring down Sofiane Feghouli in the box when the Algerian midfielder would have needed to produce something exquisite to get the free-cross. Feghouli would then step up and convert the spot-kick in cool fashion to give the Desert Fox’s a shock 1-0 lead.
Belgium remained quiet again until the 35minute when another Witsel strike from distance forced another good save from Mbolhi, who palmed it away for a corner which amounted to nothing. A free-kick wrongly awarded to the Europeans in the 38th minute almost gave them another route back into the match, but Vertonghen’s effort from the dead-ball blazed over Mbolhi’s bar.
Less than two minutes before the half, a moment of individual skill saw Eden Hazard play Nacer Chadli through on goal but his tame effort from a tight angle was only right at Mbolhi. It was then half-time, and it must be said that Belgium were very sub-par at best.
An immediate adjustment was made by Wilmots on half-time, when the impressive Dries Mertens came on for Chadli, who was very disappointing. He almost had an immediate impact in the 49th minute when his in-swinging corner missed the head of Van Buyten but inadvertently hit the head of Witsel, who headed over the bar from close range due to him not expecting it. Another lively moment again from the substitute saw him put through down the right and his squared ball almost found Lukaku, but it was claimed by Mbolhi.
Whether it was a direct result of Mertens or just a raised level of play, Belgium finally started to look the part – routinely winning free kicks in the final third and putting Algeria under far more pressure in and around their box. But their momentum was almost sniffed out in the 56th minute when Carl Medjani rose highest in the box to get his head on an in-swinging corner, but his effort flashed just wide of the mark.
The 58th minute saw Wilmots make his second change – young Divock Origi, winning just hid 3rd cap for the national team, was brought on for Lukaku who was equally as disappointing as Chadli. The 65th minute saw two changes – Fellaini came on for Belgium’s third and final change at the expense of Dembele who was also poor, while Islam Slimani came on for Soudani. Immediately after, Origi was put through on goal as he blew past the Algerian defense, but Mbolhi did well to save his stinging point-blank effort. Cracks were certainly beginning to show in the Algerian rear-guard, but could Belgium capitalize?
Belgium would finally find their breakthrough in the 70th minute, when Fellaini was picked out by a delicious ball from De Bruyne and he headed into the top corner giving Mbolhi no chance. At this point, you had to fancy Belgium to nip a second against an Algerian side that were now all hands on desk and hoping to leave Belo Horizonte with a share of the spoils.
In the 80th minute saw Belgium finally take control of the match and earn the lead so many had expected. De Bruyne made an excellent tackle in midfield to win back possession and then released Hazard down the left into space – the Chelsea man then played an inch-perfect diagonal ball to Mertens who roofed it past Mbolhi to give Belgium a 2-1 lead. Algeria did so well all match long, but the depth on the bench that Wilmots has at his disposal and their overall quality came to the fore when it mattered most. Fellaini almost made it 3-1 not long after that but his headed effort was well tipped over the bar by Mbolhi.
The match would end 2-1, and it must be said that Belgium showed their metal coming back from a very disappointing first half performance to earn the expect three points. Wilmots did so well to make the right changes at the right times, showing that no player is above the collective. Their over all ability and depth came to the fore and this will be something to build on, especially with the lessons learned from the first 45 minutes.
Men of the Match
Dries Mertens and Marouane Fellaini – Both were brilliant off the bench for Marc Wilmots’ side, but for different reasons. Fellaini completely stabilized the midfield, was brilliant in his box-to-box role, and did a fantastic job to also allow Witsel to be even more effective than he already had been. Mertens on the other hand, offered the pace, direct style and quality that Nacer Chadli failed to bring to the match by any standard. Both players got themselves on the score sheet and truly brought Belgium to life when they needed it most.
Player ratings for Belgium
Courtois – 6.0: Wasn’t called upon at all early other than the penalty, which is not his fault and he cannot be expected to save. We will see brilliance from him yet.
Vertonghen – 6.5: Directly responsible for Algeria’s goal, but after Belgium adjusted, he did as well. But that really was a foolish penalty to give away.
Van Buyten – 7.0: Did much the same as Kompany, but his lack of pace was found out once or twice. Still though, he was pretty decent.
Kompany – 7.0: Solid at the back today, dealing with anything coming into the box well, as well as re-establishing the back line after Algeria’s opener.
Alderweireld – 6.5: Was okay but did not do anything spectacular. He did not go above and beyond the call but did not really put a foot wrong either.
Witsel – 7.5: He was the only bright spot in the first half, offering Belgium’s only threat going forward, but he was even better once Fellaini was introduced – he is quite influential when he is allowed to be.
Dembele – 5.5: He will probably lose his staring birth to Fellaini after not doing nearly enough in the match. Surely he is hung over from his season at Spurs.
De Bruyne – 7.5: Got himself a brilliant assist on Fellaini’s goal and ended up being more of a box-to-box player than a playmaker. He adjusted very well in the second half.
Chadli – 5.0: Where Belgium needed pace, quality on the ball and a direct style, he offered none. Was more worried about idly standing around and waiting for the ball.
Lukaku – 5.0: Was awful. Nothing he did gave the Algerian defense any moment of pause and he was effectively taken out of the match from very early on.
Hazard – 7.0: He had a quiet match and was not nearly as influential as so many hoped. He did manage to get himself an assist on Mertens’ goal, but he will need to improve a bit.
Mertens – 8.5: Came off the bench and was a difference maker. Finished his goal well, was deadly on set pieces and brought such a direct style here Chadli abysmally failed.
Origi – 7.5: Didn’t get himself a goal, but he nearly did. His blistering pace and direct play offered so much more than Lukaku on the day, and it created space for Mertens and Hazard.
Fellaini – 8.5: Came on and was fantastic. Got himself a brilliantly headed goal, nearly had to and completely stabilized the midfield – he was great.
Player ratings for Algeria
Mbolhi – 8.0: Did so so well to keep the Algerians in it until the later stages of the match. Neither goal was his fault by any means, but he made a few fantastic saves.
Ghoulam – 6.5: Did well in the same fashion as the rest of the Algerian back line, but perhaps their inability to adapt to the Belgian substitutions was a coaching problem and not a personnel issue.
Halliche – 6.5: Alongside Bougherra, he did well in tandem to silence Lukaku to force his removal from the match – that must be given credit to. But he struggled in aerial duels in the later stages.
Bougherra – 7.0: Did very well to keep Lukaku and company quiet in the beginning, and organized the defense well. Did struggle with pace late on, but still had a good match.
Medjani – 6.5: Like most of the defense, he did well in the beginning. Once Mertens and Origi were introduced, their pace and direct style gave him problems.
Mostefa – 7.0: Was a very good link between the defense and the midfield in his ability to keep so many Belgian players quiet on the day, but was overwhelmed in the end like the rest.
Bentaled – 6.5: Did well in the first half of the match to shut down the Belgian midfield but fell off substantially after the introduction of Fellaini.
Taider – 6.5: Like Bentalib, was lively in the middle and did so well initially to cut the supply from the midfield to Lukaku, but fell off like the rest.
Feghouli – 7.0: Got himself on the score sheet and he was lively throughout the match really, but was less effective late on as Algeria was under pressure.
Mahrez – 6.0: Was a nuisance at times, but truly didn’t give Belgium all that much to think about on the whole.
Soudani – 6.0: Did not do well enough in the counter attack to really give the Belgian back line issues either before or after Feghouli’s goal.
Slimani – 6.0: For all his goal scoring prowess coming into the tournament, not only was he not trusted from the start, but did little when he was introduced – not his fault however.
Lacen – 5.5: Invisible after coming on, and while that is not his fault, he didn’t offer anything after being introduced in the little time he did have.