Belgium must find a Plan A rather than relying on Plan B

The Rio Report

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For a couple of years before the World Cup, you could barely move for knowing football shrewdies tapping their noses and telling everyone that cared to listen, and indeed many who didn't, that Belgium and Colombia were the dark horses for Brazil 2014.

Of course, it wasn't long before so many people described those two teams as underrated that they became overrated, saturation coverage by those 'in the know' rapidly making it a mainstream opinion. The teams were no longer dark horses, but simply, well, horses.

[MATCH REPORT: BELGIUM 2-1 USA]

Those that saw this coming long ago will presumably be quite satisfied that both teams find themselves in the quarter-finals, albeit facing the two giants of South American football and albeit with one making rather more stately progress to this stage than the other.

Belgium's path to the quarters has not really been flawless, bagging late wins over Algeria and Russia, a 1-0 dead rubber victory over South Korea and now needing a very nervy extra-time to beat the USA.

They of course battered the Americans for long spells, coming up against an inspired goalkeeping performance by Tim Howard, and a terrific defensive display by Omar Gonzalez, and it took them until the additional 30 minutes to finally break their opponents down, and once again required some help from the bench to do so, Romelu Lukaku coming on to set up one and score the other.

Indeed, as our friend OptaJoe points out, four of Belgium's six goals have come from substitutes, indicating perhaps that coach Marc Wilmots has the magic touch, that he can see where a game can be changed and alters his team accordingly. However, another school of thought might suggest that he shouldn't need to lean so heavily on replacements.

[REGULAR PITCH-INVADER MAKES ANOTHER APPEARANCE]

There's a thing in cricket known as 'following the ball', which is often a way to weed out a not particularly good captain. If a skipper simply moves his field to cover where the ball has recently been hit, there's a decent chance that he's winging it and isn't really sure what he's doing.

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There is a whiff of that about Wilmots' team selection, but instead of following the ball he's following the substitutes. In the first game against Algeria Dries Mertens and Marouane Fellaini came off the bench to score, and they started the next match against Russia. In that encounter Divock Origi got a late winner after coming on, and earned his place against the USA (the final group game against South Korea can't really be considered part of this pattern because they were already through so Wilmots changed two-thirds of the team). You can bet that Lukaku will find himself back in the starting line-up against Argentina after looking so dangerous and scoring against the Americans.

[OVERREACTION THEATRE: LAWRENSON'S SEXIST 'QUIP']

There is obviously a degree of logic to it. If a player is left out of the team but then shows he is worthy, then perhaps he should be rewarded. However it does suggest a manager who firstly isn't really sure what his best team is (not necessarily the end of the world in a squad game), but perhaps more importantly isn't really thinking about which is the best line-up to face certain opponents. It suggests Wilmots' planning isn't what it could be, and if Belgium really are to prove those 'know-alls' right, then that must improve.

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Because sooner or later (and since they are facing Leo Messi and Argentina in the next round, it'll be sooner) Belgium will face a team good enough to work them out before Wilmots can turn to his bench. They have a 100 per cent record in Brazil, but in truth the teams they have faced – Algeria, Russia, South Korea and the USA – are not exactly in the top bracket of international football.

Reaching the quarter-finals with a young team that is probably a few years away from its peak is a superb achievement by Wilmots and his side, but unless he figures out an effective gameplan from the start, their World Cup will go no further.

Nick Miller

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