They almost began their World Cup with headlines that would have been in stark contrast to what so many are expecting, but instead, their 2-1 comeback win against a determined and spirited Algeria proved one thing above all – Belgium are indeed a collective, rather than a bunch of individuals. Marc Wilmots himself proved that he was able to make hard decisions when it came to substitutions – if you’re not playing well, you’ll be removed, no matter who you are (Roy Hodgson and England can learn something from him).
Tomorrow will prove to be another hard test when they take on Fabio Capello’s experienced and defensive minded Russia, who kicked their campaign off with a comeback of their own in a 1-1 draw against South Korea. Very experienced in all areas of the pitch, they do not have the offensive threats at their disposal that Belgium do, but they rely on their defensive solidarity and capability on the counter. They are very similar tactically to Algeria, so if Belgium want to seal their progression to the knockout stage, they’ll have to apply the lessons learned.
Three points tomorrow and Belgium are through to the next round and will be all but assured as group winners and avoid a date with Germany, likely winners of Group G. Will they build on their opening performance, or will they stutter during another important test against Russia? Here is our preview and predictions.
Projected Starting XI
Belgium: Thibaut Courtois; Jan Vertonghen, Daniel van Buyten, Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld; Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini; Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens; Divock Origi
Russia: Igor Akinfeev; Dmitry Kombarov, Vasily Berezutskiy, Sergey Ignashevich, Andrey Eshchenko; Denis Glushakov, Igor Denisov; Alan Dzagoev; Oleg Shatov, Aleksandr Kerzhakov, Viktor Fayzulin
Key’s for Belgium:
- Applying lessons learned against Algeria. When a team fully intends on coming out in a defensive shape, you need dynamic players in your XI to break them down. Once Origi, Mertens and Fellaini came on, Belgium were 50x better, and their influential performances will be needed from the off against Russia, rather than coming from the bench.
- Limiting the space that may be left behind Vertonghen and Alderweireld. Both are good defenders, but they are not full backs. As such, they need to move up the pitch cautiously, especially Vertonghen who as found out more times than allowed against Algeria.
- Allow the attacking players behind the striker more license to roam. Hazard, Mertens and De Bruyne are all completely interchangeable, as such, Wilmots should give them free reign to pop up in the final third wherever their instincts take them. It could well be the to break down Russian’s experienced back line.
Key’s for Russia:
- Capello, like most Italians with his experiences, prefers to be defensive first in mind and deployment, and there is nothing wrong with that. Russia however do have capable attacking players that will be wasted on a Leningrad-type performance. High pressure off the ball and quick counters could be very successful for them, but the more space they cede, the worse off they will be.
- Not only must Dzagoev start, but he must be utilized properly. He has bags of ability and he is very creative, so given that, he must start in a central attacking role rather than on the wing. His ability on the ball would potentially cause problems for Fellaini and van Buyten, and if he can get them into foul/card trouble, that helps Russia immensely.
- They must be incredibly mindful of Belgium’s pace in the final third. Even if Lukaku does end up starting and not Origi, he has pace as well. Hazard, De Bruyne and Mertens all quite fast both on the ball and off it. They may be organized and experienced, but Russia lack pace by any standard at the back, and they could be found out if they aren’t perfect.
- Kerzhakov v Kompany – He may be up there in age now, but Kerzhakov still has very good predatory instincts and has a habit of always popping up at the right place at the right time in the box. Kompany will have to make sure he keeps him in his back pocket.
- Hazard v Eshchenko – The Chelsea winger didn’t have the best start to his tournament against Algeria – he was okay, but he was not nearly as influential as he is capable of being. If Eshchenko can keep him quiet, that’s a major step toward Russia getting a result.
- Fellaini v Glushakov – Fellaini came on and was fantastic, but he was deployed far further than usual. Should he start, he will be along side Witsel, and his job will be to give Witsel as much protection as possible so he can be the supply line from a deeper area. That means that Glushakov must be Fellaini’s focus, as putting him off means Witsel can excel.
Staff match predictions
Drew: I really think it depends on the XI that Wilmots selects, but I still think Belgium will win. Playing two defensive minded sides in a row gives them further time to work out the kinks going forward. After the butterflies have hopefully worn off from the first match, they’ll be far more confident I think – as long as Chadli and Dembele don’t start. Russia are never easy to break down completely, but they did show their old legs against South Korea so I think Belgium capitalizes on that. 3-1 to Belgium.
Charles: Belgium certainly will win here. I don’t really see much creativity in Russia’s midfield, and going forward it seemed that Kokorin really struggled despite such high hopes being placed on him. I wasn’t really impressed with Russia at all overall, but their defense was good. Belgium have such quality in the final third however, that I don’t really see Russia being able to keep up. I am going with 2-0 Belgium.
Luke: 3-1 Belgium. Everyone knows how much attacking quality they have, and despite Russia’s ability to defend, I cannot see that being nearly enough to keep them quiet. To their credit, Russia do have some quality going forward in their own right and apart from Kompany, they Belgium have some questions at the back themselves, so I certainly see Russia being able to at least nip one on them. On the day, I think it will be 3-1 Belgium.