Well, we’re two games into Belgium’s World Cup campaign, and the Red Devils are still trying to find their form, although that hasn’t stopped them from racking up the points and securing a spot in the knockout phase.
First, the good news: with six points in their first two matches, Belgium sits atop their group and has already qualified for the next round. A tie against South Korea on Thursday will clinch first place in the group. In addition, the Algerian side that gave the Belgians such a tough time in the first game ran over South Korea, jumping out to a four goal lead before settling for a 4-2 win. So maybe that first matchup was a little tougher than everyone thought. I expect Coach Marc Wilmots to use this next game to work on rediscovering the high level of play that made Belgium the group seed and a strong dark horse candidate to take the Cup.
Now the bad: Belgium is still playing like a team that’s never been here before, and while that hasn’t hurt these guys yet, they could easily be looking at early elimination if the bounces had not gone their way so far. It looks like they’re either significantly overrated, or they are uncomfortable on the big stage and trying to be too perfect for their own good. We’ll see if the game against South Korea, where they will not have much to play for, helps them relax. It wouldn’t be the first time a team barely sneaked by in the first round and blossomed later on, so there’s still time, but they need to step up their game if they are to fulfill their promise.
I said it before, Wilmots is not afraid to shake things up, which is a good thing when you have a lot of good players and no superstars to cater to. The coach made three substitutions from the Game 1 starting lineup: defenseman Jan Vertonghen took a seat on the bench (that will teach him to make clumsy tackles that result in opponent penalty shots), and the two goal-scoring subs, Dries Mertens and Marouane Fellaini, were in for the initial whistle this time around. Russian coach Fabio Capello, fresh off a disappointing tie with South Korea (I’m sure he felt even worse after watching Algeria manhandle the same team) made a couple of changes himself but left in goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, a strong candidate to win the award for Worst Single Play of the World Cup.
All the changes, however, didn’t make Belgium any more dynamic than they were in their opening match. In fact, this game was a rather boring affair, with the defenses clogging the lanes, the offenses showing only rare flashes of inspiration, and the goalies mostly watching. Going by the stats, the Red Devils barely won time of possession (53%) but they were outshot by the Russians 13-11. Those may look like big numbers, but a lot of them were long distance tries by frustrated players. There were a couple of balls per side that went out near the posts, but for the most part this was a plodding and uninteresting match.
But if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change, even the Belgians. With 10 minutes left on the clock the Red Devils decided to wake up and go for the three points, led once again by Eden Hazard and the bench. First a free kick from Kevin Mirallas, who had come in at the 75 minute mark, smashed against Akinfeev’s right post. Then, with just two minutes left in the game, Hazard received a pass from Divock Origi on the left wing. You may remember Origi as the only substitute not to score in the first game (which is probably why he was the only one not to start this one). Hazard got into the box, left his defender behind with a deft move, and as he reached the end line he passed it back towards Origi, who kicked it past the goalie and into the net, giving Belgium the win.
Origi’s Game Winner:
So where does this leave Belgium? Well, they’re in the second round, which is more than some other group seeds have managed to do (looking at you Spain, and maybe also Switzerland and Uruguay). Still, their play has been disappointing. They can’t continue to rely on timely substitutions and the late brilliance of Hazard; that will not be enough against the higher caliber teams they will face once the knockout phase begins. There’s time to find a better way, and Wilmots has proven himself flexible enough to experiment even in the glare of the World Cup, but something needs to change, and soon, if the Red Devils hope to make history in Brazil.
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