Belgium book their Euro 2016 spot on a rotten night
Marc Wilmots’ men were always on a hiding to nothing against such lowly opposition but Belgium have qualified for a second successive major tournament after a 1-4 win away to Andorra.
It had all the makings of one of those games were players and fans alike go through the motions. The scene was set upon the first glance at the artifical surface. Proponents of these all-weather synthetic pitches have long been at pains to point out that the technology has moved on leaps and bounds since the 1980s but clearly not in Andorra. But for the various shades of green, it could have been mistaken for a fifth-day dustbowl in Colombo or Mumbai.
Breaking down the so-called minnows is often less straightforward in practice – indeed only Belgium had managed to score six times against Andorra since 2012. For all his protestations about the fullbacks’ main job to be in defence, Wilmots took the opportunity to select two fullbacks known for their attacking intentions and Thomas Meunier in particular was heavily involved. Converted from a winger at club level, the Club Brugge man is itching for a move abroad and linked up well with Dries Mertens who was chosen by the fans as the Man of the Match.
Mertens has in my view been underrated and often delivers better performances than some of his more illustrious teammates. Tonight he showed the most intent and urgency in attack which allied to his blistering speed and ability to stretch the game meant he combined well with Meunier and was threatening in his own right. What a different story to when Meunier’s Club side were trounced 5-0 by Napoli with Mertens one of the destroyers in chief.
It had been a sluggish start to the game and it took almost nineteen minutes for the first goal to arrive courtesy of a deflected long-range shot from Radja Nainggolan. Kevin De Bruyne doubled the lead with a sumptious free-kick that dipped appreciably having cleared the wall and kissed the inside of the post on its way in. Andorra reduced the deficit after the break when a howler from Vertonghen resulted in a spot kick successfully converted by Lima. Eden Hazard then scored a penalty at the other end following the first of two handballs. The success of his normally successful nonchalant manner deserted him second time around and embarrassed the captain on the night who immediately made way for Nacer Chadli. There was a lovely moment for Laurent Depoitre (preferred to Romelu Lukaku) who scored on his international debut having been fed by Mertens. The KAA Gent man enjoys a growing reputation and bounced back well from a difficult start.
Wilmots’ pre-game interview was more interesting than the game itself. As I have noted in previous blogs and tweets, his comments are forensically monitored by his critics and even his backers would admit some of his arguments don’t have a leg to stand on. Three that spring to mind are his assertion that his system had worked for three years and would not be changed, his statement that Belgium would play along the floor against Bosnia despite the presence of Marouane Fellaini and his justification for omitting Michy Batshuayi this time around (saying he was in poor form when he’s among the leading scorers in France at this early stage of the season). Tonight there was a barb aimed at his detractors whom he said were unhappy that there were no bust-ups within the squad and that everything is resolved behind closed doors. Upon the final whistle he called it “an almost perfect evening” when speaking to VRT.
The outcome tonight was never in doubt but the manner in which the goals came, the rotten state of the pitch, the failure to keep a clean sheet against such a modest opponent and a penalty miss may not have combined to overshadow or sour the achievement of qualification but together they serve as a rather apt metaphor for what many view as an underperforming squad due to a manager who does not match up to the star quality of the players at his disposal. This is not necessarily a personal view but it is undoubtedly a prevailing view among experts with a much keener eye for the game than the author.
Israel await on Tuesday with Belgium only needing to better Wales’ result to finish as group winners. Wilmots has already confirmed that Mertens will start (hence taking the winger off) and that Romelu Lukaku, Fellaini and Nicolas Lombaerts will all return. There was no champagne football on show tonight but the travelling Belgian fans will be consuming plenty of the amber liquid. Qualification is the main objective and has been accomplished. That’s not to be sniffed at. Just look north of the border.