Wilmots 'knew moment would come' for off-key Belgians
Belgium, the World Cup's supposed dark horses, certainly finished at a gallop yesterday but only after almost falling at the very first fence.
Belgium 2 Algeria 1
They trailed Algeria for fully 45 minutes, became frustrated with one another and generally looked like they might self-destruct amid all the pre-tournament hype. Enter Marouane Fellaini.
Fresh from a season of such disappointment at Manchester United, it was Fellaini who turned the game with a brilliant second-half cameo that included a superb headed equaliser. Belgium's dominance was ultimately rewarded with a winning 80th-minute goal from another second-half substitute, Dries Mertens.
The final result, though, could not camouflage an erratic performance and the starting places of Jan Vertonghen, Romelu Lukaku and Nacer Chadli must now be under serious threat.
Manager Marc Wilmots was certainly tetchy in the post-match press conference, bristling at suggestions that his tactics were flawed and unconvincing in his suggestion that Belgium's comeback was the result of some sort of masterplan.
"In the dressing-room I had written we had a very good back squad and the substitutes would make all the difference," he said. "You build a match over 90 minutes. You may not be happy. You may say we did not create enough.
"I am not interested in that. I knew the moment would come. What did you expect? 4-0? 5-0?
"I don't know if you realise where we are now. We are at a world championship. What counts is the result. We had six opportunities. They had one. Full stop. That's it."
The huge expectation that surrounds Belgium – and which seems to so irritate Wilmots – was summed up by a massive banner that was unveiled prior to the match. "You have Neymar, we have Hazard," it said. Belgium also have the third most expensive squad in the entire tournament behind only Spain and Brazil.
Such riches allowed Wilmots to leave Fellaini, Thomas Vermaelen, Kevin Mirallas, Simon Mignolet and Adnan Januzaj on the bench while still including six Premier League players in his starting line-up.
Yet although Belgium soon established control of possession, it was very quickly obvious that their attack lacked cohesion. Lukaku struggled to link the play and demonstrated all the technical limitations that have made Jose Mourinho so indifferent about using him for Chelsea.
Even Wilmots later conceded that Lukaku's performance was "not exceptional". Kevin de Bruyne, who later admitted that he did not deserve to be named man of the match, was also initially anonymous down the right as Axel Witsel provided the only real threat with his powerful long-range shots. Eden Hazard was also struggling to impart his influence and Algeria took the lead. Faouzi Ghoulam's cross found Sofiane Feghouli who had his shirt pulled by Vertonghen, with Feghouli side-footing the resultant spot-kick past Thibaut Courtois.
Wilmots responded at half-time and as Algeria faded physically, De Bruyne crossed for Fellaini to rise and direct his finish on to the crossbar and then down into the goal. Belgium's relief was tangible and their momentum also suddenly felt unstoppable.
With 10 minutes left, Hazard's precise pass subsequently allowed Mertens to smash Belgium's winning goal past Rais M'Bolhi. (© Daily Telegraph, London)