De Bruyne inspires Belgium comeback as Lukaku frustrates
Belgium remained on course for a first European Championship appearance since they co-hosted the tournament in 2000 following a come-from-behind 3-1 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina in Brussels.
Marc Wilmots sprang no surprises with his starting eleven as Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen rekindled their central defensive partnership, Axel Witsel played behind Marouane Fellaini and Radja Nainggolan and Romelu Lukaku replaced the injured Christian Benteke up front.
It was a soporific beginning to what was trailed as a tense night of football in Brussels. Openings were few and far between until the Bosnians, cheered on by a fervent travelling support, stunned the home crowd by opening the scoring. Haris Medunjanin crossed for Edin Dzeko who found himself unmarked and superbly directed his header back across a startled Thibaut Courtois, wrong-footing the Chelsea number one.
You could have cut the tension with a knife. Those storm clouds talked about in our preview were beginning to gather. Fortunately, the response of les Diables Rouges was spirited, quick and effective. Eight minutes after going behind, Kevin De Bruyne’s corner went over the two decoy men at the near post and was met by a thundering header from Marouane Fellaini.
Rather like the other ‘Big Fella‘ – Michael Collins – Fellaini’s role is subject to incessant scrutiny and debate. The tweet below highlights just how important the Manchester United midfielder has been. With fifteen goals for his country, he is the leading scorer in the squad and last night notched his fourth of the campaign. For all the criticism, he stood up for his country again when required and his contribution to the almost certain qualification will have been major. Football is not just about goals and we should never reduce it to that level but they are pretty important.
— BeNeFoot (@BeNeFoot) September 3, 2015
This brings me on to the man who lead the line last night, Lukaku. The Everton striker would not have been my choice for last night’s game but is more suited to playing away in Cyprus this Sunday should Benteke not make it. He is very much Wilmots’ second choice behind Benteke and that stance is not without justification. Lukaku already has eleven international goals (from 40 caps) at the age of 22 and as with Eden Hazard, had fame and pressure thrust upon him at an early age.
Lukaku has not scored since the World Cup knockout game against the United States and his performance against Bosnia was the source of great frustration. His weaknesses in his close control and hold-up play were evident and he should have done better when put clear in the second half by De Bruyne. As stated above, Benteke is first choice and that must be borne in mind when considering the following. A centre-forward who is not prolific (and international strike rates tend to be lower) can be an important figure in creating space for others or bringing his fellow attackers into play. Provided that the others chip in, there is no great problem.
Marc Wilmots acknowledged this reality in his pre-game comments where he stated that the goalscoring pressure should not fall solely on Lukaku’s shoulders. The goalscoring statistics from this qualification campaign make interesting reading. Belgium, with sixteen goals, are the group’s leading scorers but of these, only three come from central strikers (one each for Benteke, Origi and Batshuayi). Fellaini is the leading scorer with four, De Bruyne has three and Hazard and Mertens have two each. De Bruyne (four) topped the charts on the road to Brazil.
All the striking options available to Wilmots are young even if Benteke and Lukaku have 70 caps between them. Perhaps (and I’m playing devil’s advocate here) removing Fellaini from the side would enable another creative player to be added but there is no guarantee the goalscoring balance of the team would not be upset. Lukaku recently bemoaned the lack of respect he feels he receives in Belgium compared to England and the above perhaps provides some insight into why. It will be an interesting one to follow in the months ahead.
De Bruyne scored what turned out to be the winning goal and allowing for the absurdity of the transfer market, showed why Manchester City have made him one of the most expensive players ever. He received the ball from Axel Witsel, turned and drilled the ball into the bottom corner. He had been able to escape the attentions of the defence and as he said afterwards, “sometimes you just have to try it”.
Belgium weren’t brilliant in the second half and were unable to capitalise on the counter-attack despite some enterprising passing and running from wide men De Bruyne and Hazard. In between times, Courtois produced two outstanding saves highlighting not only his reflexes but his concentration to be ready having had relatively little to do – the hallmark of any top class goalkeeper playing in a dominant side.
Eden Hazard secured the three points when he came to the party and won a penalty following a mazy dribble. Taking the responsibiity himself, he displayed his usual sang froid from twelve yards to send Begovic the wrong way and highlight his value to the team in spite of his inability to dominate games consistently for Belgium.
In many aspects, this was a typically characteristic performance from de Rode Duivels. The mental strength of the team came to the fore even when the play was not the most fluid – akin to the traditional DNA of this team as distinct from its northern neighbours whose own qualification hopes are clinging by a thread. There are further issues to explore – too often at the start was the width left to two fullbacks whose main convocation is at centreback but Nainggolan had a good game going both ways and his ability to burst forward is an asset. Philippe Albert put it best – the focus should be on the manner in which the team came back against what was not an easy opponent. Now it’s on to Cyprus.