It was a day for the substitutes in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday as Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens both sprung from the bench to give Belgium a 2-1 win over Algeria that had looked in serious doubt after Sofiane Feghouli had put the African side ahead early on from the penalty spot.
Perhaps never before has there been so much expected of a team that has not reached a major championship for 12 years and was three years ago ranked 62nd in the world, one place behind Iran.
However this ‘Golden Generation’ of Belgian players is expected by many to perform well at this year’s World Cup with the bookies putting them down as sixth favourites for the title.
With the runners-up of this group most likely expected to face Germany in the last 16 it was essential for Belgium to pick up all three points here against what looks to be the weakest Group H side on paper.
A cautious start to the game from both sides saw Belgium enjoying the majority of possession as Algeria looked to position as many players behind the ball as possible. Not until the 20th minute did Belgium threaten the Algerian goal when Axel Witsel’s powerfully struck long range effort was beaten away by Rais Mbolhi.
It’s not an unusual occurrence in football however for a team that’s been on the constant defence to spring an attack and surprise their opponents. That’s exactly what happened on the 24th minute mark when a quick counter attack from Algeria led to Jan Vertonghen needlessly pulling down Feghouli at the back post, leaving referee Marco Rodriguez no option but to point to the spot.
Feghouli duly obliged by coolly slotting the penalty past Thibaut Courtois to give the African side a surprise lead.
Not much was coming the way of Belgium as Algeria maintained their disciplined two lines of defence. A minimum of two white shirts constantly greeted Eden Hazard anytime he received the ball on the left wing with the Algerians not allowing the Chelsea man an inch of space.
Long range efforts from Witsel and Nacir Chadli were all The Red Devils could muster as the frustration began to grow within the relatively young side.
The impressive Feghouli was causing the Belgian defence problems every time he received the ball, the Valencia man’s quick feet allowing him to burst into space and hold the ball up, giving his defence time to regroup and prepare for the next Belgian attack.
Minutes before half time Belgium finally got in behind the Algerian defence. Hazard was afforded too much space coming in off the left wing allowing him beat two defenders and feed Chadli inside the box but the Tottenham midfielder’s strike was straight at Mbolhi.
Half time allowed the Belgians to regroup and rethink. Dries Mertens was brought on to replace Nacir Chadli, allowing De Bruyne to play closer to Lukaku in a more central role.
Five minutes into the second period a good chance went begging as Mertens corner kick deceived Mbolhi, landing on the head of Witsel, but the Zenit St Petersburg man wasn’t expecting it and could only manage a header over the bar.
For all of the patient passing and working across the pitch that Belgium were employing they finally created a clear goalscoring chance by way of a long ball through the middle of the pitch, shortly after the hour mark. Devick Origi, brought on to replace Lukaku, was allowed to run through on goal but his effort was straight at Mbolhi.
Then it was time for the introduction of Marouane Fellaini allowing Belgium to become more direct as the height and strength of the Manchester United midfielder caused havoc among the Algerian defence.
On the 70th minute it was this tactic that gave Belgium their avenue back into the game. A delightful right footed cross from De Bruyne found the head of Fellaini who used the power on the cross to flick the ball into the top corner, by way of the crossbar.
The impetus was with the European side now as the Algerians began to tire. A De Bruyne tackle on Feghouli 30 yards from the Belgian goal allowed the team in red to break as Kompany set Hazard away. The Chelsea winger skilfully let the ball run past him on the halfway line before bursting into space before the Algerian box.
His pass out to the right wing found Mertens who bore down on goal and fired a powerful shot past Mbohli to give Belgium the lead with 10 minutes to play.
Fellaini went close with another header minutes later but his effort was well saved by Mbohli. It was not to matter however as Marc Wilmots’ substitutions had been enough to turn the game around and give Belgium all three points.
Next up for The Red Devils is their clash with Russia in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana while Algeria face South Korea at the Estádio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre. Both ties take place on 22nd June.
Belgium: Thibaut Courtois; Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Daniel Van Buyten; Kevin De Bruyne, Nacer Chadli (Dries Mertens, 46), Axel Witsel, Mousa Dembele (Marouane Fellaini, 65), Eden Hazard; Romelu Lukaku (Divock Origi, 58).
Subs not used: Simon Mignolet, Sammy Bossut; Nicolas Lombaerts, Anthony Vanden Borre, Steven Defour, Laurent Ciman, Kevin Mirallas, Thomas Vermaelen, Adnan Januzaj.
Booked: Jan Vertonghen (24).
Algeria: Rais Mbolhi; Madjid Bougherra, Faouzi Ghoulam, Rafik Halliche, Carl Medjani (Nabil Ghilas, 84); Nabil Bentaleb, Sofiane Feghouli, Riyad Mahrez (Medhi Lacen, 72), Mehdi Mostefa, Saphir Taider; El Arabi Soudani (Islam Slimani, 66).
Subs not used: Mohamed Zemmamouche, Cédric Si Mohamed; Yacine Brahimi, Hassan Yebda, Djamel Mesbah, Aïssa Mandi, Liassine Cadamuro, Essaïd Belkalem, Abdelmoumene Djabou.
Booked: Nabil Bentaleb (34).
Extratime.com Man of the Match: Dries Mertens, Belgium.
Referee: Marco Rodriguez (Mexico).