Sweden 0-2 Belgium: Job done as De Bruyne shines again
Belgium ended their week-long training camp in Sweden with a 0-2 win over their hosts courtesy of goals from Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard.
Marc Wilmots opted to play first-choice goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois ahead of Simon Mignolet but otherwise the side was as expected with van Buyten, Dembélé and Mertens getting a run out from the start. Thomas Vermaelen was shifted over to leftback as a result and he looked out-of-sorts throughout with Sweden looking to target both flanks. The hosts’ fullbacks provided plenty of service in the early stages and looked to whip low crosses in to take advantage of a poor surface but les Diables Rouges managed to weather the storm. Vincent Kompany was a threat throughout the game from set plays, thrice coming close to scoring.
Kevin De Bruyne, again handed the freedom of a central role, almost broke the deadlock with a beautiful, curling shot that struck the angle between post and crossbar. It was, however, Romelu Lukaku who opened the scoring with a stunning left-footed strike from 25 yards beyond Andreas Isaksson. The lone striker kept his composure and didn’t try to overhit the strike as he scored his ninth international goal, taking him one behind van Buyten. The veteran centreback could have restored his two-goal cushion but was denied by Isaksson at the back post.
Belgium went into the interval a goal to the good and in sharp contrast to Monday’s game against Luxembourg, Wilmots opted not to make any changes. The intensity on the part of the visitors dropped away in the second half. Dembélé shot straight at Isaksson before Durmaz hit the crossbar with Courtois unmoved. Fortunately, the game was lit up by Eden Hazard doubling Belgium’s advantage when he combined neatly with De Bruyne to open up the Swedish defence and space for a strike that left Isaksson flat-footed. Hazard immediately went off to be replaced by Fellaini. There was enough time for Courtois to make a couple of saves to ensure the clean sheet and for De Bruyne to almost cap another fine display with a goal but his shot found the base of the post.
While Wilmots looks to have got into the defenders’ heads during the week to root out their nonchalance, there is a need to tighten up the fullback areas. Swedish coach Erik Hamren cleverly targeted both Alderweireld and Vermaelen. In defence of the Atletico man, he wasn’t afforded a lot of protection from Mertens. Vermaelen looked uncertain all night and even if he is a natural centreback, he lacked the confidence that is not forthcoming at club level. Despite those misgivings, I would still start him alongside Kompany as the two work well together but that wouldn’t be the most robust vote of confidence. A third successive below-par performance could put his spot in severe doubt.
Eden Hazard bore the brunt of some criticism last night. While this writer has been at pains to point out for years that his international displays did not match his reputation, he has begun to turn the corner for de Rode Duivels in the last fifteen months. He looked lively at the start and was tracking back quite deep with Vermaelen looking shaky and though he faded thereafter, he was still good enough to score an excellent goal. His place should not be set in stone à la Courtois, Witsel, Kompany, De Bruyne and Lukaku but Wilmots knows how to handle him and is keeping a close eye on the Chelsea man as evidenced with a good talking to during the week.
Dembélé was a big positive last night. Again, that is nothing new from this outlet but he can drive the team forward with a surge of acceleration and change the pace of the game in an instant, as he did on several occasions last night. It would be good to see him combine more often with Lukaku coming short and laying it off for the give-and-go to allow Dembélé to then drive into the vacant space. For a player who doesn’t score often, he has a rocket inside that left boot when his confidence is up but for me he should start alongside Witsel as he also has the strength, the mentality and the ability to relieve the team of pressure in tight situations.
Finally, there have been more than a few mutterings about the intense nature of Belgium’s training camp. That and a combination of the pitch and a desire to save themselves for future endeavours led to the side’s tempo falling away last night. Time will tell whether Wilmots has dropped the ball with the conditioning but swimmers tell me this is a tried-and-trusted technique to sacrifice short-term freshness for medium-term endurance and performance. The next game is this Saturday in Brussels against Georges Leekens’ Tunisia.
Marc Wilmots: “It was a nice ending to an outstanding training camp. It was a good training camp with excellent training sessions and no injuries. I have got what I wanted. At the start of the game we had some difficulty but we gradually began to drop deeper as a team and we dealt with them well. We were strong in the transition from defence to attack and created five chances through that. (A clean sheet) is good for the statistics but we can let in three or four as long as we score one goal more. Lukaku has made huge progress over the last few months and is now being praised for his good work. He is very eager to improve and is a good listener.” (VRT)
Vincent Kompany: “We were well organised and we had lots of chances to score. It was a good warm-up. We showed it often enough during the qualifiers that we have a good team so we don’t need a match like this to gain confidence. The most important thing is to stay alm and to prepare as is necessary. We worked an awful lot in training during the entire week so we will probably be fresher come Brazil. If we continue in the same manner over the next two weeks we will a team that is ready to go for the first game.” (RTBF)