Belgium finished their Russia 2018 World Cup campaign with a third place finish, and The Anfield Talk’s Ronan (@ronan_orourke) relfects on their tournement.
Few could have envisioned the World Cup playing out the way it did. International football had slowly but surely been losing its appeal over the past few years with the increasing power of the club game. The incredible showcase that unfolded in Russia proved though once again that the World Cup can entertain like no other. It was an outstanding tournament from start to finish.
For the Belgian national team it was a tournament where history was very much at stake. After all, as I explained in my preview a few weeks ago, the squad had underachieved quite emphatically over the past two major tournaments where many favored them for ultimate glory. The expectations weren’t as great this time around even after convincing wins against minnows Panama and Tunisia in the group stage. After Belgium beat England for the first time in the battle of the ‘B’ squads, nobody was quite ready to jump aboard the Belgian hype train just yet. This was especially true as it was thought that the winner of that dead rubber match actually was rewarded with a more difficult route through to the final.
Be that as it may, quietly I was getting excited. After all, I had not yet been impressed by any one side in the tournament despite some highly entertaining matches. Brazil looked decent, as did Spain but there wasn’t the usual fear factor surrounding these sides. The same could be said of both finalists of four years ago in Germany and Argentina who seemed to be struggling to get their campaign revved into high gears. Even eventual winners France were a little underwhelming in the early going.
Instead, we had some new pretenders early on. Croatia were quite comfortably the form team of the groups though other less regarded nations were also emerging from the shadows. A youthful Nigeria side were playing without fear, Senegal looked consistently menacing, while Peru and Japan were playing with a rare air of total freedom. Even the always slightly underwhelming Mexicans were finally threatening to become a team to fear in the latter stages of the World Cup.
Perhaps no story was better though than the heavily un-fancied hosts making a fairytale run to the quarter finals before narrowly falling to Croatia. The Russians certainly proved a lot of supporters wrong in their lengthy and enjoyable quest for an unlikely home victory and the atmosphere at their games was first class.
The left hand side of the draw did appear to be on paper quite a bit more terrifying than the opposite half. It had Argentina, France, Portugal, Uruguay, Mexico, Brazil, and of course Belgium. That’s not to say that the right hand side was a doddle but aside from Spain and the early form side Croatia it didn’t look terribly menacing on the surface. This of course was a sight for sore eyes in England where “football coming home” fever had swept the entire nation based on questionable at best evidence that eventual victory was possible. Even so it was a great run for England before going out in extra time in the semi finals to the still impressive Croatians.
Martinez Proves His Worth
Back to Belgium now though, and pre-tournament I believe I had some relatively fair doubts on the capability of Roberto Martinez to lead the Red Devils to the promised land. I doubted his system, I doubted his player selection, and perhaps most of all I doubted his ability to adapt when the going got tough. Now I am not going to pretend I have suddenly become a member of the Roberto Martinez fan club but for what it’s worth he earned my respect in Russia.
There was many vocal opponents as to why he left the brilliant Radja Nainggolan out of the squad but for the most part this did not come back to haunt him. The team played as a solid collective unit and there didn’t appear to be any unrest in the camp which is of course often a criticism of this national side. Essentially the entire squad was involved in the run to the semi finals apart from the luckless deputy goalkeepers. Our own Simon Mignolet probably would have been quite disappointed not to play in the first England game but as always he was probably the biggest sideline supporter out there. Say what you want about Mignolet the goalkeeper, but his attitude has never been less than top notch.
I was skeptical about how the 3-4-3 system Martinez prefers would hold up in the later rounds of the tournament. Martinez though unlike during his Everton days was now not afraid to adapt and adapt well.
The turning point for this Belgium team had to be the stunning comeback in the last 16 against Japan when all looked lost at 0-2 with 25 minutes to go. In fairness the Belgians had done little wrong but had been punched hard in the mouth by two quite brilliant Japanese goals. Even so, many would have expected the team to buckle but Martinez and the lads had other ideas. They refused to be knocked out. He sent on two substitutes who wouldn’t typically get pulses racing. He removed Dries Mertens to send on who is admittedly one of my least favourite players in Marouane Fellaini, and sacrificed the frustratingly ineffective Yannick Carrasco for West Brom’s Nacer Chadli.
It was a stroke of genius. Japan’s undersized back four who were already struggling with the aerial presence of Romelu Lukaku suddenly had to deal with two giants threats. Jan Vertonghen’s fortunate looping header soon after brought the game back to life before Fellaini scored the most towering of towering headers after great work by captain Eden Hazard.
The stage was set at this juncture but the game somehow seemed to meandering towards extra time when Japan won a corner late in stoppage time. That very same corner was gathered by Thibault Courtois and the rest is history…
Belgium’s tactical set up in the quarter final against Brazil was even more astute from Martinez. He remained faithful to the two super subs and Fellaini provided a little more congestion in the midfield alongside Axel Witsel. This allowed Kevin de Bruyne to roam alongside Hazard behind Lukaku to give the Belgians a devastating front three. This system paid off handsomely when Lukaku teed up de Bruyne for another top class example of perfect counter attacking football for what was ultimately the winning goal in perhaps the biggest victory in Belgian football history.
The Belgians also did little wrong in the semi final against France. Having lost the in form Meunier to suspension, Martinez brought in Mousa Dembele who many believed should have been starting all long but the Spurs midfielder had a rare off day which did not much help the Belgian cause. Despite this, the neutrals watching would mostly have agreed that Belgium were the better team to watch led by an outrageously good performance from captain Hazard. Ultimately, they fell victim to a set piece goal, and a referee who seemed to fall for every tactic of gamesmanship from France in the second half. Nothing to be ashamed of at all.
Kompany Comes Through
One of the biggest stories of the early going was the fitness of former captain, and still spiritual leader Vincent Kompany. A minor injury in a warmup fixture threatened to derail another opportunity for a player that has given so much to the national team over the years. Celtic’s Dedryck Boyata filled in for the group games but I don’t think it was an exaggeration to say that Belgium’s ultimate hopes depended on Kompany proving his ability to be match fit.
When he came off the bench in the group game tussle with England, it was as if the hopes of the entire country were coming on with him. When he started against Japan in round two, it felt like anything was now possible. For a player that has had such horrendous luck with injuries throughout his career, it was incredibly fitting to see him take his place alongside Toby Aldeweireld and Jan Vertonghen in the heart of the Belgium back three and pretty much perform as if he had never left. What a legend of Belgian football he truly is.
Hazard Taken Over the World
There needs to be a special mention too for current captain Eden Hazard who has had his critics in the past. He has often been accused of being too nice to be a truly top footballer, or not captaincy material, or he doesn’t score enough… blah blah blah…
The Chelsea man was out of this world both on and off the pitch throughout the tournament. While he was near unplayable in the knockout rounds, it was his intervention in the opening group game against Panama that might have been most crucial. At half time, he said to Lukaku that the team needed more from him as they were essentially playing with 10 men. Sure enough, Lukaku came out firing in the second half and scored two crucial goals. Too nice? Not a captain? Think Hazard is finally growing into what we always knew he could be.
I have stated in the past my hatred of when people try and claim one of Hazard or Mo Salah is better. Both are brilliant in my eyes and very unique. It is possible that both can be top players simultaneously right? I think so.
Role Players Playing Their Part
Finally, mostly everyone knew that Belgium would be as good as Hazard and de Bruyne would allow them to be and while that was true to some degree again, it was a true squad effort in Russia. Nacer Chadli who had an injury disrupted season at West Brom earned his way slowly into a starting position by the end of tournament with his energetic and enterprising performances at wing back. The much maligned Fellaini played the role he was born to play against Japan and Brazil though it may have been a game too far for him against France, and of course the always unheralded Axel Witsel held the midfield together well for the duration of the tournament. Even Adnan Januzaj who was a surprising and controversial inclusion scored a classy winner in the first England game.
There needs to also be a special mention for Thomas Meunier and Thibault Courtois who might not always be the most highly regarded players as far as consistency goes. They too were brilliant in this tournament. Courtois’ save and celebration from Neymar at the death in the quarter final was one of the moments of the tournament for me. And almost anything positive that Belgium did in attack, you could count on Meunier being involved in some way. It was a massive shame that the flying wingback was suspended for the crucial semi final. It is not out of the question to suggest he could have made the difference in what was a very tight encounter.
The victory over England in the third place play off was the icing on the cake for the Belgians. It could be thought that the France v Belgium semi final was the battle of the tournament’s two best sides though Croatia of course were worthy runners up as well. It was a World Cup that demonstrated fittingly that winning isn’t always all that matters. The Belgians are now in celebratory mood and for good reason as the Croatians are with their silver medal. The Golden Generation of Belgian football finally gave us the tournament they had promised for years and it will not soon be forgotten. They were Red Together.