Belgium 1-0 Tunisia: Hail Mertens, Lukaku limps off
Belgium overcame an apocalyptic hailstorm and a stubborn Tunisian side to seal a 1-0 win courtesy of a late Dries Mertens winner in their last friendly before they leave for Brazil on Tuesday.
Georges Leekens set his team up to make it difficult for the hosts, who dominated the ball throughout. The distribution from midfield wasn’t up to scratch in part because the centre of the pitch was too congested. Though the stats showed seven Belgian attempts on goal in the first fifteen minutes, they didn’t reflect the more unconvincing nature of the play. Origi was bright in his first start, however, and he was much more involved, with a good turn in the box before a shot straight at the goalkeeper and another acrobatic effort, which sailed over.
We were then treated to an incredible show – not from the players – but from the elements overhead. The sunshine had given way to ominous dark clouds, torrential rain and hailstones the size of golf balls. The pitch looked more like a driving range and it was more akin to a warm up for the Ryder Cup and not the World Cup. Referee Kassai Viktor took the players off the ground to ensure their safety and play was suspended for more than 40 minutes. There was then a further delay as a hole had appeared in one of the nets.
Once we got back underway, the match never really got going. Belgium continued to find it difficult to open up the Tunisians though Kevin Mirallas should have done better when put through by a clever ball over the top from an otherwise quiet Eden Hazard. Origi went close again after another burst of pace that is fast becoming his forte and the sides went in 0-0 at the break. Anthony Vanden Borre and Mertens came on in place of Toby Alderweireld and Marouane Fellaini.
Tunisia were reduced to ten men when Issam Jemaa was sent off and his sarcastic applause of Kassai went down like a lead balloon. The game needed a lift and Wilmots decided to introduce Adnan Januzaj for his “second” debut. Jan Vertonghen went close with two typically thunderous strikes but it was the Manchester United man who produced some magic down the left, crossing to the far post only for the phoenix that is Vanden Borre to head wide.
With the World Cup fast approaching, an uneventful end to the game may have been just the tonic but that’s not how things turned out. Dries Mertens put some gloss on an uninspiring display in the 89th minute as he again demonstrated his ability to make a difference off the bench. Nacer Chadli slipped the ball through to the Napoli man who kept his cool and slid the ball past Ben Mustapha for a goal made in Apeldoorn (where they used to play together at AGOVV). Romelu Lukaku took a kick to the ankle and worryingly limped off at the end to be replaced by Axel Witsel – more on that below.
The disjointed nature of the game allied to the continued fitness work the players have been subject to make this a strange game to look at but there were a few pointers we can take. Firstly, if the opposition are happy to afford the most space to Alderweireld then things aren’t functioning as they should. Mirallas and Hazard came off their respective flanks resulting in the centre of the pitch being congested and the flanks not being exploited to the fullest extent. Interchanging of positions is something to be harnessed but not at the expense of the team’s shape and making things more difficult for the midfield.
Speaking of which, the midfield definitely has to include a playmaker against sides who defend deep and in numbers. One of the strengths of De Bruyne is his ability to make himself available to receive a pass, as well as what he can do once he has the ball at his feet. Too often Defour or Dembélé would win it back only to have to go back to van Buyten. Defour had a few passes that went astray but he also dovetailed well with Dembélé, who would drop deep when the ex-Standardman went forward, as he can do to some effect.
The youngsters have settled in well. Januzaj can be an important weapon off the bench to change the game and he has already displayed a reassuring lack of nerves in his short time as a Rode Duivel. Origi is also growing into the role as the backup for Lukaku with his acceleration causing problems for defenders and his ability to make runs down the channels can create space for other players. He can improve his link-up play from deep but his display was encouraging.
Marc Wilmots: “This was a good test but Algeria will be better going forward. We can also then counter attack better. It is difficult to play against a team with numbers behind the ball but I congratulate my players. They stayed calm and gave away few chances. It’s also nice to score in the last minute. Lukaku took a kick (Ed: to the ankle) and it didn’t look good but the medical staff gave me some good news: it looks like it will turn out fine. We’ll have to wait 2-3 days but I don’t think it’s too serious. (VRT)
Vincent Kompany: The victory wasn’t the most important thing. We had a good training session in Knokke. We began well and then the conditions changed the face of the match. We stayed calm and played the ball around. We go to Brazil full of confidence. We never hesitated to take to the field again after the stoppage. We wanted to go on for the fans. I didn’t see what happened to Lukaku but he’s a strong boy. He will be ready for the first World Cup game. (RTL Belgique)
Where to from here
The players have just completed their final training session on Belgian soil. Lukaku will undergo a scan and is in excellent hands. Courtois and Vertonghen remained inside after last night’s exertions but there was a team photo with the Belgian Royal Family. The players will now have some free time with their families before jetting off to Brazil on Tuesday in their bespoke plane. There will be a friendly with the USA played behind closed doors.
Belgium’s first major tournament in twelve years is fast approaching. Are you as excited as we are?
Featured image courtesy of @Belreddevils