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Eden Hazard’s winner fails to silence Wilmots’ critics

A late winning goal from Eden Hazard got Belgium out of jail as they snatched a 0-1 win over Cyprus in Nicosia to move even closer to qualification for Euro 2016. The temperature was appropriately high for the heat has been turned up a notch on coach Marc Wilmots.

Wilmots made one change from the team that beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 3-1 on Thursday, bringing Christian Benteke in for Romelu Lukaku. There looked to be a conscious effort to begin with a lot more purpose than was the case on Thursday night but this was always going to be impossible to maintain given the conditions. What was unexpected was what this would give way to – a most dull, uninspiring and turgid display that several players and pundits alike labelled the worst in years in the aftermath.

Benteke may have been declared fit by the medical staff but from the first minute he was as a blunt as a hammer and showed none of his trademark power. He proved himself incapable of bringing the ball under control or laying the ball off to a teammate – giving the ball away repeatedly. We highlighted the infuriating nature of Romelu Lukaku’s display against Bosnia but at least the Everton man offered some semblance of a goal threat that was sorely lacking in Cyprus. Wilmots had insisted that Benteke was 100% fit but both the on-field evidence and some of his other comments greatly undermined the credibility of that statement and lent weight to the argument that Wilmots sticks too rigidly not just to his own gameplan but to a fixed hierarchy of players. Quite why the in-form and speedy Michy Batshuayi was banished to the stands is a mystery but if he continues to do well for Marseille, he will have to play some part against Andorra.

Wilmots explained prior to the game that he wanted Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard to come infield more often. Were the rationale for this to bring by far the two most creative players closer together to enable them to combine then it could be justified. Rather, the coach wanted more room created for overlapping fullbacks Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, centrebacks by trade who are doing a job in the absence of specialist alternatives. The logic of this is deeply flawed. Surely (and I am not a qualified coach) the less adept players should be sacrificing themselves for the benefit of those teammates who can unlock the door and make the difference?

Marouane Fellaini was rendered impotent last night. The failure of Benteke to move the side up the field was a factor in that it meant the giant midfielder could not make the runs into the box or that any such movement was redundant. In addition, the more limited attacking capabilities of the fullbacks and the instructions given to the wide players did not play to his strengths. The game on Thursday also looked to have taken its toll physically but the tactical mish-mash indicates a lack of coherence. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater regarding Fellaini whose goals have been pivotal. Goal options cannot afford to be jettisoned easily. However, if as stated he wasn’t expected to play the full ninety and bearing in mind the above, a substitute role would have been more befitting. I would always start him but then as a major goal threat, he cannot be a spare part.

One player whose performance greatly disappointed me was Axel Witsel. He looked sluggish and off the pace. His passing was not crisp and compared to some of the enterprising movement of the Cypriots, Witsel was static. He has admitted himself that he wishes to leave Zenit and had been strongly linked to a move to Milan but for his current club’s intransigence. Sometimes he does give the impression of a player who has been too long in the comfort zone and who recognises that a new challenge is just the boost his career requires.

In the midst of this hailstorm of criticism, there were a small number of positives to be taken from the victory. Thomas Vermaelen gave an exceptionally commanding display at centreback and is clearly thriving as a result of the confidence that has accompanied his return to fitness. Several times, he was called upon to resort to last-ditch challenges to save the day and he read the game impeccably, anticipating and reacting to mistakes from others – indeed it is fortunate that he had Vincent Kompany’s back or we might have been reflecting on a very different outcome. A fully fit and in-form Vermaelen, for all his poor form at club level in past seasons, remains a real asset for this team going forward.

The aforementioned sluggishness of Witsel (and Fellaini is not exactly the most mobile) was in sharp contrast to the energetic Radja Nainggolan. The AS Roma midfielder has enhanced his standing with his performances in this international break. He was able to win the ball back in more advanced areas than Witsel occupies and he is able to burst forward and break into the box. When he latched onto a garguantuan throw from Thibaut Courtois, he almost capped a fine two games with an excellent strike. Perhaps miscast in the past as a purely defensive player, there are times when it might be better if he could stay back so Witsel’s motor can get out of second gear. Witsel is the best player in front of Kompany and Vermaelen but as I said during the last qualifying campaign, one of the greatest strengths of this group of players is their versatility which needs to be tapped into more often.

De Bruyne did not have his most glittering game but he was invariably at the centre of Belgium’s better moments and could be seen encouraging his teammates to try to dominate the inferior opposition on paper. He produced a magnificent pass for the goal, lifting the ball over to (in my eyes) the underrated substitute Dries Mertens on the left. Words cannot do its magnificent justice. The Napoli man then found the onrushing Eden Hazard, who had by now been moved infield – and though out-of-form, he met the ball with his left foot and emphatically drove the ball home. Wilmots admitted afterwards that Hazard was maybe the worst player out there but he declined to replace him, knowing he can turn a game at any moment irrespective of what has gone before.

Wilmots admitted it had been a poor game. De Bruyne and Mertens called it the worst they had played in. The effects of pre-season at club level, the heat and the impact of Thursday cited by Wilmots were simply not cutting through. The storm clouds are rumbling and the beying mob want blood. I am of the view they only have to sit it out until next July. Nevertheless, while the qualification criteria have been relaxed owing to a 24-team tournament, it is still a long and arduous road along the way. Over ten games, there will be one or two against minnows where a favoured side coasts through, some tough battles against the fellow contenders and some matches where digging in is required and the result comes in spite of the performance. Few people in time remember or care how qualification is achieved. Just ask Sweden and Poland who would be among the first to qualify only to falter when it counted. Belgium are on the brink of France 2016. Wilmots is no Louis van Gaal or Michel Preud’homme. He’s also no Danny Blind.




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