Two games down; two substitute-inspired triumphs.
The pre-tournament clamour for Belgium’s golden generation has been infiltrated by doubt as they struggle to unlock defences.
This wasn’t the Belgium many had tipped for success, but their early results are ominous for the other nations in Brazil. They may not have clicked yet – although we saw a glimpse of their attacking potential in the final 10 minutes against Russia – but they are grinding out victories. It’s perfect tournament football.
For much of their Group G clash with their fellow Europeans, Belgium’s creative ensemble buzzed around the opposition backline looking lively but producing dreary and predictable results.
Romelu Lukaku drifted through the game without direction. The man who upset the Premier League’s stingiest defences last season, firing 15 goals along the way, could barely get a touch. It led to an astonishing statistic: in 115 minutes of World Cup action the striker had accumulated just one touch in the opposition penalty area.
Eden Hazard weaved across the pitch in a desperate bid to find space, but each new touch merely directed the Russian swarm into his path. On the other flank, Dries Mertens was a rare bright point in the opening period but even he was anonymous after the restart.
It was Russia who looked the more likely, carving out a string of openings in an otherwise insipid first half. Thibaut Courtois, the standout European goalkeeper from last season, twice palmed clear drives before Aleksandr Kokorin somehow headed wide with the goal agape.
The stage was set for Fabio Capello’s troops to conquer the heavily-fancied Belgians. The Italian threw on Alan Dzagoev – the young midfielder who excelled at Euro 2012 – with eight minutes remaining to push for a deserved victory. But from that point on, they were barely in the contest as Belgium awoke from their slumber.
Substitute Kevin Mirallas rolled a free-kick against the post, Eden Hazard twice tricked his way into the penalty area and the once resolute Russians were caught out of position. Moments later, another Marc Wilmot’s replacement was wheeling away in delight – 19-year-old Divock Origi becoming the latest player to emerge from the Belgium conveyor belt of talent.
They had done enough to beat Russia, but surely their World Cup journey would come to an abrupt halt in the knockout stages? Well, perhaps not.
This Belgium side might be in their formative years, but they already understand the art of grinding out results. They qualified at a canter, claiming a healthy 26 points from a possible 30, but it was a campaign built on defensive resolve rather than attacking brilliance.
A backline marshalled by the impressive Vincent Kompany – who ended a speedy Russian counter-attack in the first half before landing a superb tackle to spark Belgium’s winner in the second – conceded just four goals en route to Brazil.
Make no mistake. This is not a team of individuals. Yes, their attacking talent has struggled to shine but, crucially, it has produced when it mattered. This is a side used to grinding out hard-fought victories, indeed only one of their 10 qualifying matches was won by more than a two-goal margin.
They haven’t shown the form of a World Cup winner elect, but neither have tournament favourites Brazil and Argentina. Even Germany have dropped points. With none of the major forces displaying complete dominance, it’s been left the outsiders of Chile, Colombia, France and the Netherlands to get the neutral excited.
Belgium are in that chasing pack and are rightly being touted as potential victors. They’ll likely meet Argentina in the quarter-finals, but on their early showing in Brazil can go into that clash with real optimism.
So get used to their cagy and resilient brand of football. It’s here to stay.
- Sports & Recreation