Russia next opponents for Red Devils
22 June ~ Relief was the prevailing mood both in the Belgium squad and among fans back home after the hard-fought 2-1 win over Algeria in the opening game. A combination of pre-tournament journalistic hyperbole (about the so-called "golden generation"), marketing overkill and – last but not least – the fact that this was Belgium's first World Cup game in 12 years resulted in unfairly high expectations. Hard as it is for this Tottenham supporter to admit it, the Red Devils' Spurs contingent had a collective stinker.
Mousa Dembele and Nacer Chadli were conspicuous by their inefficiency against a well-organised defence; the latter slightly busier but also guilty of aiming the tamest of efforts at the Algerian goal when there were far better options. Jan Vertonghen, meanwhile, conceded the penalty that gave Algeria the lead, with a push that was as clumsy as it was needless. As coach Marc Wilmots later said, Vertonghen did get stuck in afterwards and contributed to the second goal. But he is a central defender who helps out at left-back, while Belgium's full-backs more generally are cause for concern – and, with Vertonghen on a yellow, it could get worse.
Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne disappointed too, the former frustrated at the Algerians' tactics and the latter seemingly struggling in the sweltering heat. Belgian newspapers equally criticised the inclusion of Chadli and Dembele in the starting XI and praised their inspired substitutions.
Marouane Fellaini (unrecognisable from a pedestrian season at Manchester United) and Dries Mertens both scored, while Divock Origi, on for Lukaku, was sharp. But Wilmots is not the kind of coach who chops and changes. It is, therefore, fair to assume that the team that lines up against Russia will be extremely similar.
The 1-1 draw between South Korea and tonight's opponents Russia was, of course, welcome news for Belgium. The round-of-16 game against the Soviet Union at the 1986 World Cup is often regarded as the Belgian national team's finest hour, when the last "golden generation" (Enzo Scifo, Jan Ceulemans, Eric Gerets et al) overcame a deadly accurate team spearheaded by Sergei Aleinikov and Igor Belanov.
The game also showcased the world's best two goalkeepers of that era, Belgium's maverick Jean-Marie Pfaff and his polar opposite Rinat Dasayev (a man dubbed,with touching predictability, "the Iron Curtain") and from who the current incumbent, Igor Akinfeev, could learn a thing or two.
Of course it would be foolish to underestimate Fabio Capello's tactical nous or Alexander Kerzhakov's 26 international goals, but it can only be a matter of time before Eden Hazard starts expressing himself more freely and Belgium as a team play with greater fluency. The nation awaits – within reason. PM Doutreligne @rockabillyslick