A dreary performance from Belgium was rescued with two goals in the concluding 20 minutes as Marc Wilmots’ side defeated Algeria 2-1 in the Group H opener in Estádio Mineirão. Algeria took the lead through a Sofiane Feghouli penalty after Jan Vertonghen hauled down the Valencia talisman. Marouane Fellaini was brought on and promptly equalized with a winding header, before Dries Mertens, who came on as a substitute for Chadli, scored the winner when he finished off a swift counter-attack with a clinical strike, putting the game to bed.
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Formations & Line-ups
Belgium (4-2-3-1): Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Daniel Van Buyten, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Axel Witsel, Mousa Dembélé (Marouane Fellaini 65’), Kevin De Bruyne, Nacer Chadli (Dries Mertens 46’), Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku (Divock Origi 58’).
Algeria (4-3-3): Rais M’Bolhi, RafikHalliche, MadjidBougherra, CarlMedjani (Nabil Ghilas 84’), Faouzi Ghoulam, NabilBentaleb, Mehdi Mostefa, Saphir Taider, Riyad Mahrez (Lacen 71’), El Arabi Soudani (Islam Slimani 66’), SofianeFeghouli.
Goals: Sofiane Feghouli (24’); Marouane Fellaini (70’), Dries Mertens (80’).
Absence of full backs hurting the Red Devils
Belgium commenced slowly and despite corralling Algeria back in their own half, Wilmots’ side failed to disrupt the rear-guard and were largely exasperated at times. The Algerians subjugated the vulnerability of the Belgian defence. With both Hazard and Chadli cutting in from the wings, both Algerian full backs had ample room to make overlapping runs. Against the run of play, Belgium were staggered when a rapid Algeria counter-attack saw a lovely cross from Ghoulam from the left make its way to Feghouli, who was pulled down by Vertonghen inside the box. Feghouli took the penalty himself and stroked home his team’s first WC goal in 550 minutes.
Very little chance creation
A wary start from both sides saw the game bereft of early chances, with Belgium dominating possession and the Algerians happy to sit back and allow the Belgians to come at them, though pouncing on every opportunity to unsettle their play and attack on the counter. With the likes of Lukaku and Hazard seemingly isolated, Algeria’s steadfast defence restrained the European side to any clear-cut chances. Nacer Chadli, who was chosen ahead of Mirallas & Mertens, failed to release the ball quickly enough, link up with De Bruyne and was dispossessed on multiple occasions. As a consequence, Lukaku had to drop deep to get the ball, leaving a void upfront.
Feghouli’s creativity in the midfield
The Valencia playmaker started on the right side in a 4-3-3 setup, but played a huge role in the centre of midfield. Almost all of Algeria’s chances were crafted by the star man who enjoyed an 86% passing rate, and scored the opening penalty. He could also be seen tracking back and hindering Eden Hazard’s runs, linking defence and attack. In a largely defensive setup, Feghouli’s creativity and passing on the counter seemed to offer a constant threat for the Red Devils.
Wilmots’ game changing substitutes
Wilmots introduced Mertens for Chadli at half-time in an attempt to revitalize his team going forward, and it nearly had an immediate impact as he delivered a series of good crosses and a corner that Witsel headed over at the back post. The introduction of Mertens saw Belgium switch to a more functional 4-1-4-1 with De Bruyne & Dembele in the heart of midfield, given the license to go forward. Eventually Belgium’s pressure forced a leveller, though, as Wilmots’ third sub, Fellaini, got in front of his marker and reinstated parity with a skimming header rattling the crossbar and into the back of the net with 20 minutes remaining.
Kevin De Bruyne, who had been very subdued up to that point, found room on the left and whipped in a cross to the near post for the Manchester United midfielder, who was playing as a supporting striker to Divock Origi. This established a decent link up play between the front two and the midfield trio, and one superfluous body in the box. Mertens then made his way onto the score sheet in the 80th minute after a lightning-quick break from Eden Hazard led to the winner. The Chelsea attacker drew two defenders before finding his team-mate and Mertens made no mistake in dispatching the ball past M’Bolhi.
KEY PLAYER OF THE MATCH
Axel Witsel: Arguably the only player who attempted to make something happen for his country in the first half and had a few pot shots from long range while his total of 47 passes before the break was more than any of his team-mates, he maintained a passing percentage of 89% till the end of the game. He ended the game having made four successful tackles, which was again more than any of his team-mates. In Witsel, Wilmots has a robust defensive midfielder, guarding the back four. It was because of Witsel’s daunting presence in the holding region that the substitutes who came on in the second half had the autonomy to push forward and make an impact. He outclassed Medjani and Bentaleb, regulated his team’s gameplay, released the ball quickly and linked up well with the players infront, De Bruyne in particular.
WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE THEM?
With Russia & South Korea drawing 1-1, Belgium now sit on top of Group H with 3 points while Algeria stand fourth with a goal difference of -1. Wilmots will be hoping to see his side perform better in the upcoming fixtures against Russia & South Korea. The striking department remains a huge concern for the Belgians and could prove to be the difference. Halilhodzic, on the other hand, needs to recuperate his players who did a fine job in the first half. Belgium now face Russia on 22nd June and the Algerians go up against South Korea on 23rd.
This piece was written by Aman Sardana. Follow him on Twitter @amans95
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