World Cup 2014: Belgium – Russia Preview
The reward for qualifying for a major tournament is the chance to test yourself on the European or world stage. However, Belgium have been particularly fortunate not merely to take their place in Brazil, a country as fanatical as any about football, but to have been afforded the chance to play in one of the world’s most famous stadia – the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro. It’s the setting for what was billed as the most difficult game for les Diables Rouges in the group stage but preparations have not been ideal.
Coach Marc Wilmots has copped a good deal of criticism for his team selection, with the midfield of Mousa Dembélé and Nacer Chadli proving ineffective against a stubborn Algeria side. Wilmots defended his starting eleven saying he wanted a team that would keep deny Algeria the ball and force them to come after it and lose their shape. That notwithstanding, changes are certain.
One alteration Wilmots will not want to make is to have to bring Thomas Vermaelen into the heart of defence alongside Daniel van Buyten, who looked shaky at time against Algeria but whose prior tournament experience is viewed as a precious enough commodity to command a spot in the eleven. Vincent Kompany is a doubt with a mild groin strain and Wilmots has sought to bat away questions about his captain’s fitness. Having already made it clear he would wait for the medical staff to assess the injury, he terminated an interview with VRT when pressed on the issue a second time though in fairness, it was about to come to an end in any case.
Those unfamiliar with the team have wondered why Wilmots persists with a back four without specialist/attacking fullbacks and does not switch to a back three. Again it has to be stressed that the defence was exemplary in qualifying and formed the basis of de Rode Duivels’ recent relative success. Others may disagree but none of the candidate fullbacks have made a compelling case for inclusion. If Ricardo Rodriguez or Mathieu Debuchy were available, they would of course be picked. Furthermore, I would argue that now is not the time to make significant changes and for those pointing to the northern neighbours, they are slightly more accustomed to three at the back.
Most of the discussion has centred around the midfield. I feel a bit for Chadli who is a good player but wasn’t deployed in the right circumstances as more guile was needed to break down the Algerian defence. It also follows that what was the best solution in the first game need not be today though if Russia do control possession, Dembélé is the ideal man to relieve the pressure on the back four but his lack of being clinical is likely to cost him his place. Wilmots is right to state that Russia will be more ambitious but he is equally wary of their ability to counter with pace. This may lead to Steven Defour coming in to play alongside Witsel and not the third, most advanced midfielder. Defour has been used for difficult assignments such as Scotland and Croatia away and man-marking Wesley Sneijder. He is a fine passer of the ball and a real team player, covering a lot of ground and he and Witsel have a great understanding that dates back to their time at Standard.
Marouane Fellaini made a big difference in the last game with his aerial ability, goal threat and willingness to get into the box in support of the main striker, something Lukaku praised in advance of this game as he feels it will relieve him of some pressure. Should he start, Kevin De Bruyne will move to the right wing. He was surprised to be selected there against Algeria but he will find it easier to infuence the game from that position against Russia one suspects as we saw during qualification. The alternative is to keep De Bruyne infield and start with the impressive Dries Mertens, who scored the winner on Tuesday. The advantage of this would be added pace and the possibility of pinning back Kombarov who likes to get forward from leftback. It is tempting to have Mertens’ ability to change the game from the bench to fall back on but he is surely too good to be typecast as a permanent supersub.
In attack, 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. Fellaini’s presence would help Lukaku and Wilmots was right to criticise some of the knee-jerk reaction aimed at his main striking option. Lukaku’s touch was poor but he should have more of a chance to use his mobility to the team’s advantage against the Russian centrebacks.
The team have got over the hurdle of their first tournament game and should be more relaxed this time out. I expect Kompany to lead the side out onto the hallowed Maracana pitch and for the game to be as tight and hard-fought as it was against Algeria. Three points will see Belgium into the last sixteen and for all the criticism of the team, it’s not a bad position to be in given the circumstances of the tournament. And not many can say they have tasted World Cup action in this most iconic of arenas.
UPDATE: Wilmots has named his team and there are three changes, one of which is very surprising. Nacer Chadli, Mousa Dembélé and Jan Vertonghen make way for Dries Mertens, Marouane Fellaini and Thomas Vermaelen.
Belgium: Courtois – Alderweireld, van Buyten, Kompany, Vermaelen – Witsel, Fellaini, De Bruyne – Mertens, Lukaku, Hazard