World Cup Preview: South Korea – Belgium

And so we come to the final game of the group stages for the Belgians who find themselves in a position they’d have given their hind teeth for before the tournament. Already in the last sixteen with a game to spare and almost certain to win the group, Marc Wilmots can now be afforded the luxury of rotating his squad to allow some players to rest, reflect on their (lack of) performance and to give some of the squad members a run out.

Kompany's presence missed. Photo - Erik Drost

Vincent Kompany will sit out this one with a slight groin injury (Photo: Wikipedia)

Wilmots had made up his mind to give Nicolas Lombaerts a starting berth in the heart of the defence. The question was whether the veteran Daniel van Buyten would be rested or skipper Vincent Kompany. In the end, the decision was made for Wilmots with Kompany unable to complete last night’s training session meaning he will sit out tonight in order to be fully fit for the first game of the knockout stages.  Wilmots is not too concerned at this stage stating that he felt a pain in the groin, perhaps due to the muscle being overworked – it is worth recalling that Kompany did have a slight groin strain in the build up to the Russia game but still played 90 minutes.

Axel Witsel has more than earned his rest having been ever-present in the qualifiers and one of Belgium’s best players in the tournament to date – he will be replaced by Steven Defour who had been expected by many to start against Russia. It would be no surprise if an accomplished performance from the FC Porto midfielder led to him keeping his spot for the tougher assignments that lie in wait.  Toby Alderweireld is another player who will sit this game out having done a reasonable job in what can still not be called a comfortable position for him to fill although he was fortunate not to concede a penalty in the last game. Anthony Vanden Borre comes in – that other rare commodity in this squad – a specialist fullback. His recent return to form for Anderlecht has been one of the great stories in Belgian football in recent times given the ups and downs he has experienced in a most turbulent career. His is a popular selection amongst supporters.

The main talking point though has been what to do with Romelu Lukaku. He came in to this tournament expected to spearhead Belgium’s attack. Twice he has underwhelmed, to say the least and twice he has been outshone by his replacement, the young Divock Origi. The contrast between the two could scarcely be greater at this moment in time. Origi was the saviour with his dramatic, late winner against Russia and is now being linked with an eventual move to Liverpool. Lukaku’s petulant reaction upon being substituted endeared him to no-one as he refused to take the hand of Wilmots and then openly vented his displeasure. Wilmots has spoken to Lukaku, who has rightly apologised and been assured that while the criticism has been flooding in, should he turn the tables later on in the tournament, the same critics will be falling over themselves to shower the Chelsea man with praise.

Belgium coach Marc Wilmots hit back at criticism from foreign journalists in his press conference. (Photo:Wikipedia)

Belgium coach Marc Wilmots hit back at criticism from foreign journalists in his press conference. (Photo:Wikipedia)

Asked whether he would ever consider employing a sports psychologist, Wilmots reacted in the negative. He fulfils that role himself, along with physio Lieven Maesschalck, and in his own words, is uniquely positioned to counsel his players given his own varying experiences at major tournaments. He didn’t play at all in 1990, played just 54 minutes in 1994, scored twice in 1998 and was one of the stars of 2002 when he dragged Belgium through the group stages and we all know what happened after that. It is an interesting debate though given how much the position is in vogue with the success of Steve Peters with Liverpool and snooker legend Ronnie O’Sullivan.

In my view, the time is right to put Lukaku on the bench and give Origi a first start at this tournament. Ideally the Lille man would look to recreate his winning combination with Eden Hazard although he too may be saved for the second round. Origi makes intelligent runs that occupy the defenders, is quick and at this stage of his career he has the fearless approach that is what the team need to break the shackles of two mediocre performances. Returning to Vanden Borre, although Wilmots has picked him primarily for his defensive quality, he has shown he can perform in big games in the Champions League and he will be required to show he can give better support to the right winger than Alderweireld. On the other side, Jan Vertonghen will play and captain the side despite being on a yellow card – a world away from him being dropped only to come on as a substitute for the injured Thomas Vermaelen (not to mention Wilmots’ pre-game comments) a few days ago.

This will be the third time Belgium have faced South Korea at the World Cup. In 1990 they won their opening game 2-0 thanks to a lob from Marc Degryse and a thunderous strike from fullback Michel De Wolf, who hadn’t before scored for his country and never would again. Eight years later the circumstances were altogether different. Belgium went into the final game of the group needing a convincing win to progress to the second round and for the second time in three games, squandered a lead to draw 1-1. Luc Nilis’ early goal had given les Diables Rouges the lead only for Yoo Sang-Chul to equalise not long before our good friend Georges Leekens had withdrawn Enzo Scifo in favour of Franky van der Elst.

On a final note, Wilmots has not taken too kindly to some sharp criticism from foreign journalists. While no manager should be above criticism and while Wilmots is no Louis van Gaal, he is also right to rail against the jibes of those who either wish to make a name for themselves or who simply don’t know the team as well as they might. If you want to read some reasoned discussion on how the team can move forward, check this excellent article on our website by Chris Mayer.


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