Fellanini fire



(Marouane Fellaini 70, Dries Mertens 80)


(Sofiane Feghouli 25-pen)

As expected, Belgium won their first game of the tournament, beating Algeria 2-1 in Belo Horizonte.

But there was nothing comfortable about this victory.

For a team who were supposed to be the "dark horses" of this tournament, Belgium struggled to break out of a gentle canter for much of the game.

It took a series of increasingly desperate substitutions from manager Marc Wilmots to turn the match around, but despite his joy, he will know that this could have ended very badly.

Algeria manager Vahid Halilhodzic will be desperately disappointed.

The Bosnian, who took Ivory Coast to the 2010 World Cup but was sacked just months before the first game, deployed his players shrewdly.

Algeria kept men back and shut down all the space on the pitch, removing any possibility of allowing the Belgians to play through them.

Halilhodzic knew that sooner or later Belgium would make a mistake and when they did, his striker Sofiane Feghouli took full advantage.

He will lie awake tonight wondering how they weren't able to hang on to their lead.

Belgium started slowly and gradually eased off as the first half unfolded.

With no width coming from their fullbacks, their midfielders simply ran straight into a North African wall.


Or rather, they walked straight into a North African wall, given that few players ever broke out of a gentle trot.

Romelu Lukaku dropped deeper and deeper in search of possession, but when he secured it, there were so many Algerians between him and the goal, there was little he could do.

Algeria were content to sit back and absorb what could only be loosely described as pressure, hoping to take their chances on the counter-attack.

And that's precisely what they did.

On 24 minutes, Faouzi Ghoulam scampered down the left flank, swung a cross into the box and Jan Vertonghen clumsily hauled Feghouli to the ground.

There was no doubt that it was a penalty, and equally there was no doubt from Feghouli when he struck the ball home firmly into the bottom corner.

It was 35 minutes before Belgium could put a shot on target, a long drive from Axel Witsel that was easily pushed away by Rais M'Bolhi.

Just before the break, Nacer Chadli got a sight of goal, but not of Lukaku who was in a far better position to shoot. The chance was lost.

Wilmots knew that a change was required. Perhaps pace was the answer.

With that in mind, off came Chadli and on came Dries Mertens, a quick forward who has impressed for Rafa Bentiez's Napoli this season and is widely known as "Dries Lightning".

He immediately made inroads in the Algerian defence, but not to any great effect. Still the goal would not come.

Wilmot acted again on the hour, hauling off the disappointing Lukaku and replacing him with Divock Origi.

The Lille man had a fine chance seven minutes later, breaking through one on one with M'Bolhi, but smashing it straight at the Algerian goalkeeper. Still no equaliser.

This time Wilmots went back to basics. Off came Dembele on and on came Marouane Fellaini, an enormous pile of hair and muscle, to dominate the final third.

Third time's a charm. Five minutes after his introduction, Felliani smashed a header home after a fine cross from Kevin De Bruyne.

Then Mertens give them the go-ahead goal. And the Belgian supporters rejoiced.

This was so close to a humiliation, but it ends as vindication for a relatively inexperienced coach labouring for an expectant nation.

But if Belgium are to progress further in this tournament, they will have to avoid another start like this.

Neither Russia nor South Korea will be so forgiving.

This article was first published on June 18, 2014.
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