Belgium, many people's dark horses before the World Cup, kicked off their campaign on day six of the tournament with a below par victory over a stubborn Algeria side.
The Belgians set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation and started the game in an almost Spanish fashion. They sat back and tried to retain possession, not really forcing anything, waiting for a chance to create itself or for space to open up in front of them. Algeria, though, had a stern defence and were workmanlike in the way they chased and harried the Belgian players.
For the opening twenty minutes of the game neither side was able to really get a foothold and both sides gifted the opposition possession with a sloppy pass or poor control.
Indeed, the first incident of any note came on the twentieth minute when midfielder Axel Witsel had a fierce shot from outside the penalty area, which was beaten away by Algerian keeper Rais M'Bohli.
The Belgians, strong favourites before the game, were not playing well. Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen was caught off-guard by a good cross and pulled down Yacine Brahimi in the area; a penalty was given and converted with ease by Sofiane Feghouli. 1-0 Algeria.
Was an upset on the cards?
Belgium's patient passing game was ineffectual; for a team littered with Premier League stars such as Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany, they were not creating anything. And when they did create, it was a shot from outside the box. Which was never troubling the Algerian keeper.
Another speculative attempt from Witsel forced a save from the Algerian keeper. Other than that the remaining twenty minutes were a nonevent. Algeria went a goal ahead and were content to sit back and defend. Credit to them, they did that very well.
Belgium though were very poor in the first half. Slow passing and a slow tempo never troubled Algeria. Players like Hazard didn't get the ball enough to be able to create anything. Lukaku up front who had done well to recover in time for the game, was not holding the ball up well enough or creating any sort of outlet for the Belgian advanced players to make runs off. Kevin De Bruyne was particularly poor. Chosen as the man to play close to the striker. His passing was not accurate and he wasted several set pieces which Belgium, given their height, could have taken advantage of.
Belgium boss, Marc Wilmots, made a change straight after half time. Introducing Dries Mertens for Nacer Chadli. The Tottenham wide player had not had a great season with the North London club. Why he was picked to start was a strange decision for me. Especially given that Kevin Mirallas of Everton was on the bench. He'd had a very good season. He's a speed merchant with quick feet, the ability to beat a player and score a goal. In the mould of Hazard but not at that level. Still a certain starter for most teams.
This forced a change in tactics. Mertens played wide right and De Bruyne moved closer to striker, Lukaku. This change had an instant effect. The Belgian tempo increased and their passing became more accurate. The brilliant Eden Hazard saw more of the ball and was able to beat players, as he does week in week out for Chelsea. A corner was whipped in by Mertens on forty eight minutes, the keeper flapped at the ball and a waiting Witsel could not control the header. A golden chance missed.
Further substitutions were risked early on. Marouane Fellaini came on to replace Moussa Dembele. And Romelu Lukaku was replaced by little known Lille striker, Divock Origi.
Lukaku, who is known for his power, pace and athleticism did not look himself. Origi came on and added pace up front and he looked dangerous. Fellaini offered a different option, as he is very tall and physical and allowed Belgium to become more direct, which paid off for Wilmots.
On seventy minutes the breakthrough came, Eden Hazard played the ball back to Kevin De Bruyne who, despite his poor performance, delivered a quality cross which Fellaini met and glanced home off the cross bar. 1-1.
From then on it was all Belgium and there was only ever going to be one winner.
Their second goal stemmed from good defensive work from Fellaini and Witsel. The ball was distributed to Hazard on the counter attack, who picked the right pass and found Mertens charging into the right of the area and buried a vicious shot into the roof of the net to put Belgium 2-1 up.
The game was won. Belgium had their win and I am sure a lot of people's money is safe for now. Algeria played well for an hour and will be hard to break down. Belgium though, if they can play at the tempo and accuracy of the second half will be a danger to the best.
Pace, power and skill. Belgium posses players with all three attributes. In Hazard they have a player of genuine class. And today, he played better than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo had done for Argentina and Portugal. So why is he not in the debate for the world's best player?
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