Substitutes spark Belgium to 2-1 win over Algeria
Fellaini, Mertens come off the bench to turn defeat into victory
(Marouane Fellaini 70, Dries Mertens 80)
(Sofiane Feghouli 25-pen)
As expected, Belgium won their first game of the tournament, beating Algeria 2-1 in Belo Horizonte.
But there was nothing comfortable about this victory.
For a team who were supposed to be the “dark horses” of this tournament, Belgium struggled to break out of a gentle canter for much of the game.
It took a series of increasingly desperate substitutions from manager Marc Wilmots to turn the match around, but despite his joy, he will know that this could have ended very badly.
Algeria manager Vahid Halilhodzic will be desperately disappointed.
The Bosnian, who took Ivory Coast to the 2010 World Cup but was sacked just months before the first game, deployed his players shrewdly.
Algeria kept men back and shut down all the space on the pitch, removing any possibility of allowing the Belgians to play through them.
Halilhodzic knew that sooner or later Belgium would make a mistake and when they did, his striker Sofiane Feghouli took full advantage.
He will lie awake tonight wondering how they weren’t able to hang on to their lead.
Belgium started slowly and gradually eased off as the first half unfolded.
With no width coming from their fullbacks, their midfielders simply ran straight into a North African wall.
NO WAY THROUGH
Or rather, they walked straight into a North African wall, given that few players ever broke out of a gentle trot.
Romelu Lukaku dropped deeper and deeper in search of possession, but when he secured it, there were so many Algerians between him and the goal, there was little he could do.
Algeria were content to sit back and absorb what could only be loosely described as pressure, hoping to take their chances on the counter-attack.
And that’s precisely what they did.
On 24 minutes, Faouzi Ghoulam scampered down the left flank, swung a cross into the box and Jan Vertonghen clumsily hauled Feghouli to the ground.
There was no doubt that it was a penalty, and equally there was no doubt from Feghouli when he struck the ball home firmly into the bottom corner.
It was 35 minutes before Belgium could put a shot on target, a long drive from Axel Witsel that was easily pushed away by Rais M’Bolhi.
Just before the break, Nacer Chadli got a sight of goal, but not of Lukaku who was in a far better position to shoot. The chance was lost.
Wilmots knew that a change was required. Perhaps pace was the answer.
With that in mind, off came Chadli and on came Dries Mertens, a quick forward who has impressed for Rafa Benitez’s Napoli this season and is widely known as “Dries Lightning”.
He immediately made inroads in the Algerian defence, but not to any great effect. Still the goal would not come.
Wilmot acted again on the hour, hauling off the disappointing Lukaku and replacing him with Divock Origi.
The Lille man had a fine chance seven minutes later, breaking through one on one with M’Bolhi, but smashing it straight at the Algerian goalkeeper. Still no equaliser.
This time, Wilmots went back to basics. Off came Dembele on and on came Marouane Fellaini, an enormous pile of hair and muscle, to dominate the final third.
Third time’s a charm. Five minutes after his introduction, Felliani smashed a header home after a fine cross from Kevin de Bruyne.
Then Mertens gave them the goahead goal. And the Belgian supporters rejoiced.
This was so close to a humiliation, but it ends as vindication for a relatively inexperienced coach labouring for an expectant nation.
But if Belgium are to progress further in this tournament, they will have to avoid another start like this.
Neither Russia nor South Korea will be so forgiving.
“Fellaini is one of the best headers of a ball in Europe... He was so dominant in the air that my players didn’t have an answer.”
— Algeria coach Vahid Halilhodzic
“Mertens has speed on the wings, Origi has strength up front and Fellaini has physical force. This worked well.”
— Belgium coach Marc Wilmots (above), admitting that his substitutes changed the game
Strength in depth augurs well for Red Devils
GAME CHANGERS: Fellaini and Dries Mertens (No. 4) celebrate after the win.
Goals from substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens showed that Belgium have the strength in depth to justify their tag as genuine World Cup contenders.
Playing in their first Finals since 2002, the Belgians, nicknamed the Red Devils, struggled to justify the pre-tournament hype for much of their Group H game with Algeria in Belo Horizonte, but scored twice in 10 second-half minutes for a 2-1 victory this morning (Singapore time).
They had dug a hole for themselves when defender Jan Vertonghen needlessly tugged back Algeria's Sofiane Feghouli to concede a first-half penalty.
Feghouli converted to give the north Africans their first goal at a World Cup since 1986.
After taking a surprise lead, Algeria sat back and soaked up Belgian pressure on a hot day, while continuing to threaten on the break.
Belgian playmaker Eden Hazard, closely marked by the Algerian defence, found it hard to exert much influence and striker Romelu Lukaku was forced to drop deep into areas where he posed no danger.
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots stressed the impact that substitutes can have on a game and Fellaini and Mertens illustrated the point perfectly.
Mertens came off the bench at the start of the second half and immediately provided an attacking spark down the right, helping to take the pressure off Hazard.
Wilmots sent on Fellaini after 65 minutes and pushed him up alongside teenage striker Divock Origi, who had replaced Lukaku.
Fellaini, who endured a wretched first season at Manchester United after a £27.5 million ($58.4m) transfer from Everton, looked like the player of old.
He levelled the score at 1-1 after 70 minutes, guiding a flicked header in off the underside of the crossbar to convert a fine centre from the hardworking Kevin de Bruyne.
Mindful of potentially tougher games to come against Russia and South Korea, Belgium picked up the pace as they sought all three points.
The winner came courtesy of a classy counter-attack that showcased Belgium's strengths.
De Bruyne, named Man of the Match, won the ball well and swiftly fed Hazard, who made use of some rare space to pick out Mertens with a perfect pass which the midfielder smashed past goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi.
Among the unused substitutes for Belgium was teenage Manchester United forward Adnan Januzaj, another player with the ability to turn a game against tiring defenders.
With such a talented squad, Belgium are harbouring hopes of matching the exploits of their 1986 team which reached the semi-finals before losing to Diego Maradona's Argentina.
This win showed they also have the character to progress in Brazil.
For Algeria, there was the consolation of that first World Cup goal for 28 years and the confidence they will take from giving the group favourites such a tough game. - Reuters.