Belgium 1-0 Russia: Origi sends Red Devils through
To say it wasn’t pretty is an understatement but Belgium are in the last sixteen after a 1-0 win over Russia thanks to a dramatic late winner from Lille striker Divock Origi.
Marc Wilmots made three changes to the side that started against Algeria, dropping Tottenham trio Nacer Chadli, Mousa Dembélé and most surprisingly Jan Vertonghen in favour of Dries Mertens, Marouane Fellaini and Thomas Vermaelen. Wilmots told RTBF that he wanted a real defender on the left who wouldn’t leave space in behind. He almost had to reverse that decision when the Arsenal captain injured himself in the warm-up but he recovered to take his spot in the side.
Belgium began better than on Tuesday although they did overcommit to an early corner. It didn’t take long for Mertens to come to prominence down the right flank. His pace proved torturous for Kombarov at leftback and the Napoli man had an early shot blocked. De Bruyne was linking up well with his right winger, finding him with ease with passes over the top or through the Russian defence. Mertens’ constant changes of direction and direct approach were the biggest positive from the first half but he lacked the requisite support from lone striker Lukaku. Vermaelen’s eventful day came to an abrupt end when he pulled up with what looked like a hamstring injury and he was replaced by Vertonghen.
Russia had every right to feel hard done by when they were denied a penalty following a rash challenge from Toby Alderweireld. Thibaut Courtois was twice called upon to make good saves to deny Faizulin and the lively Kanunnikov and the best chance of the first half fell to Kokorin who got in between Kompany and Vertonghen only to head wide. Vincent Kompany also held his nerve when he alone stood between Kokorin and Courtois on the counter in what will go down as one of the finest pieces of defending in the tournament. Wilmots decided not to make any changes at the break as the sides went in scoreless.
Whatever positives there were in the opening 45 vanished after the break as any tempo drained away from the game. Neither team were able to create clear-cut opportunities and Belgium looked short of inspiration. The distribution out from the back was non-existent, which meant that Russia were able to pressurise les Diables Rouges. Lukaku was given ten minutes of the second half before again being hauled off for Origi. The Chelsea man didn’t shake his manager’s hand and was not shy in showing his displeasure with the change but when he reflects on the game, he’ll see that he again failed to deliver.
Origi was an improvement on Lukaku but the game continued to be a turgid affair prompting Wilmots to introduce Mirallas in place of Mertens, whose threat had vanished like the referee’s magic spray. Hazard was having another quiet day in national team colours but this was exactly the kind of scenario that has led Wilmots to keep faith in one of his stars in the hope that he would swing the game in Belgium’s favour with one moment of brilliance.
It wasn’t until the closing stages that Belgium began to come alive but not before Russian substitute Eshchenko spurned a decent opportunity. The spark that set Belgium off was a Mirallas free kick, which struck the base of the post with Akinfeev struggling to get across. Suddenly, Hazard began to lift his game and go through the gears. He twice beat two men, first paying for seeking out Origi and then seeing his shot deflected behind for a corner.
Hazard then made sure it was third time lucky. He beat his man on the outside and danced to the byline down the left before cutting the ball back and finding Origi, who with composure belying his tender years, struck the ball high and past Akinfeev. It was his first international goal and he could scarcely have picked a better time to score it. It was a goal made just over the Franco-Belgian border in Lille. As for Hazard, he fully vindicated his manager’s faith and the sense of relief was palpable both in the stadium and back home in Belgium. Wilmots danced on the touchline and there was still time for Mirallas to come close to making it 2-0.
Belgium made it hard for themselves and even harder for their fans to watch but they have achieved their initial goal of making it out of the group. In the process, Thibaut Courtois completed the 100th clean sheet of his career – an astonishing statistic. Australia have received many plaudits at this World Cup but are going home. There is work to do yet for Wilmots but I’d much rather be in Belgium’s shoes.