Belgium 2-1 Algeria: Fellaini and Mertens turn it around

It was a real rollercoaster and full of nerves but Belgium came from a goal behind to beat Algeria 2-1 in their first game of World Cup 2014. Substitutes Marouane Fellaini and then Dries Mertens secured a hard won three points for de Rode Duivels.

Marc Wilmots opted for Nacer Chadli in central midfield alongside Mousa Dembélé and Axel Witsel, meaning that Kevin De Bruyne played on the right. Belgium began very nervously with Algeria much more assured. The Desert Foxes were comfortable with the ball before ceding the majority of possession and territory to the favourites. It was a typical of the slow starts Belgium often made in qualification. Belgium struggled to break down a resolute and organised Algerian defence, which defended deep as had been expected.

Marouane Fellaini changed the game when he came on. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Marouane Fellaini changed the game when he came on. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Daniel van Buyten looked shaky and was characteristically slow on the turn while in front of him, the team lacked tempo and ideas. It was Axel Witsel who rather unexpectedly had two of the better shooting opportunities with two long-range shots beaten away by the goalkeeper. Disaster struck at the midway point of the first half when Algeria broke forward with a decisive attack. The ball was played into the box first-time and Jan Vertonghen stupidly pulled Sofiane Feghouli down at the far post, leaving the referee no option but to point to the spot. Feghouli stepped up and calmly sent Thibaut Courtois the wrong way. Vertonghen may prefer to play at centreback but that does not excuse such a terrible mistake.

Belgium now found themselves in somewhat unchartered territory although they did go behind in the qualifiers to Croatia only to salvage a point. The tempo did not improve for the remainder of the first half. Chadli was ineffectual and De Bruyne needed to come inside to operate centrally as the plan was supposed to be against a tight defence, which makes it all the more bewildering why he began out wide. At least Eden Hazard showed a willingness to try and shake things up setting up Chadli whose shot was tame.

Marc Wilmots acted at the break with les Diables Rouges trailing. He introduced the pace and direct approach Dries Mertens offers in place of the ineffectual Chadli. The play picked up with a surprised Witsel heading over and Mertens racing to the byline though he could not find Lukaku. An important Vincent Kompany header kept Belgium ahead but still the team required something else. Wilmots boldly threw Divock Origi on in place of Romelu Lukaku, whose style is more suited to opponents who leave more room in behind.

Kevin De Bruyne is much more suited to playing centrally against a resolute defence as he showed today. (Photo: Erik Drost/Wikipedia)

Kevin De Bruyne is much more suited to playing centrally against a resolute defence as he showed today. (Photo: Erik Drost/Wikipedia)

Ironically then it was Origi who had a great chance when he got in behind Bougherra only to be denied by the right boot of Mbolhi in the Algerian goal. The young Lille forward had looked lively in friendlies and was not fazed by the big stage. Wilmots’ final throw of the dice was to introduce Marouane Fellaini in place of Dembélé – the Manchester United man being more of a goal threat, especially in the air. And how it paid off. On 69 minutes, De Bruyne – now central – picked out the unmistakable head of Fellaini, who produced a magnificent header, which found the back of the net via the post. Belgium were back in business and the momentum began to swift irreversibly in their favour, reaping the rewards of a more direct approach brought about through Fellaini’s presence as well as sheer necessity.

Origi was stretching the Algerian defence and creating spaces for his teammates as Belgium turned the screw and Algeria tried desperately to cling to a point having had the stuffing knocked out of them. De Bruyne was becoming ever more influential and he played his part in the winner, winning the ball back in midfield. Origi found Hazard, who calmly laid the ball into the path of the onrushing Mertens. The Napoli man blasted the ball into the back of the net and Wilmots went mad. Mertens showed yet again what an impact he can have coming off the bench and his finish embodied the new-found confidence in the team.

Fellaini was causing all kinds of problems in the opposition’s box. He had another header superbly saved and stumbled when another chance came his way. Not having to chase the game suited Belgium and they saw out the rest of the match without too much difficulty. At one point, many would have taken a draw as Belgium nervously fumbled their way the first half like the World Cup virgins most are. However, the exuberance of Origi, De Bruyne conducting from a central role, Mertens’ pace and composure and Fellaini’s aerial power all contributed to a memorable World Cup comeback. Belgium are back on the world stage and boy didn’t they make it memorable?

Marc Wilmots: “It was very difficult as we expected. The players were very tense and stressed. The circumstances didn’t help them either but ultimately we managed to be patient before capitalising on the Algerians’ tiredness. During half-time, I gave the players the message that the bench will make the difference and that turned out to be true.” (Sudinfo)

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    • Gary

      I think he would be reluctant to change the back four unless there was an injury. It’s important to find the right balance ahead of the defence but that doesn’t necessarily mean that what was right yesterday will be right against Russia and South Korea. I feel a bit for Chadli who is a good player but wasn’t deployed in the right circumstances for the reasons I alluded to above, that De Bruyne is the man needed to unlock packed defences. Returning back to the defence, it is a mystery to many as to why Lombaerts doesn’t get more of a go but Wilmots did plump for van Buyten towards the end of qualifying as his first-choice backup to Kompany and Vermaelen and perhaps he values the outgoing Bayern man’s tournament experience in a squad that has no other.

      • Dennis Meyer

        @Gary: Thank you. If he does make changes it’s better to do it sooner than later. Especially after a come-from-behind win… It will also be interesting to see what happens with the goal scorers. It’s probably tempting to want to start Mertens and Fellaini but they could also be useful coming off the bench to change games. But hopefully we won’t find ourselves in a deficit again (in the group stage at least).

        • Gary

          Open to correction here but Russia tend to use a (converted) winger at leftback i.e. Kombarov and Zhirkov has played there too so perhaps it is better to start with Mertens who can help pin him back with his pace. There is also the school of thought that Mertens is more effective coming on to change the game but it’s not as if he is a limited player who should solely be limited to substitute appearances. The centre of the pitch was very congested v Algeria, which is why it was a good choice not to select Mirallas who would only have added to that. Russia are in theory the strongest team and so Wilmots would not be unwise to opt for a more cautious line-up but at the same time they didn’t look particularly impressive in the game against South Korea.

          On van Buyten/Lombaerts, another journalist seemed to agree with my line of thinking that Wilmots places particular importance on the former’s prior tournament experience, that being such a rare commodity in the squad, to the extent he is prepared to override his stated preference for a right-left combination à la hollandaise.

          Lukaku’s place is not in question yet but if we see an encore in the next match, Wilmots will strongly consider throwing in Origi from the start against South Korea.

          In the midfield, I wouldn’t be so quick to write off Dembélé. He can be more valuable against a team who will have more possession than Algeria did. Against sides who defend deep, for me has to play closer to goal as he did earlier in his career. I still think he can do damage in the final third as though he is not a prolific goalscorer, he at least used to have a good shot on him from distance. Fellaini is a fantastic player and I stand by everything I wrote on this website when he left Everton. I wouldn’t call this a problem but if you have three in midfield and Witsel is the deepest and Fellaini is mainly focused on taking up good goalscoring positions on the edge of and in the box, then that leaves one midfielder to look for the passes. That could be De Bruyne as he looked excellent when playing centrally and he is very creative but you may then have to forfeit some of his ability to get into the box – he was of course the leading goalscorer in the qualifiers.

          Will probably regurgitate a lot of this in my preview at the weekend!

          • Dennis Meyer

            @Gary: Ok awesome. Glad to get you started. Thanks for the response because it’s hard to get guidance on this subject. Not just in California but also on the internet if you don’t know where to look… I like the Mertens breakdown. In my mind he deserves the start (putting Chadli on the bench, KDB as CAM, and Hazard/Mertens on the wings)… I didn’t have the guts to bring up Lukaku vs Origi yet haha. I figured Lukaku would get another shot; albeit on a short leash. But I’m really hoping RL shows a thing or two because the foreign press would have a feeding frenzy if Origi somehow becomes a starter on this team… Agreed about Dembele. I think another of his best qualities is his powerful, speedy dribbling ability. He can make those explosive, marauding runs forward that are really damaging to a defense. He’s better to partner with Witsel at the start and have Fellaini come on late if you need another big body in the box.

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