For the second time in three days, a group favourite has started a game against un-fancied opposition with a strange lineup; for the second time in three days they were forced to revert to their standard shape at halftime. But while Argentina managed to grab an early lead against Bosnia and Herzegovina despite playing poorly, Belgium were in far more trouble -- Algeria scored a 25th minute penalty, putting the Red Devils in a hole they had to fight like mad to escape from.
Two goals late in the second half from two substitutes sealed the 2-1 victory for Belgium, but after this match Marc Wilmots will almost certainly be reassessing his tactics.
Algeria (4-3-3): Raïs M'Bohli; Faouzi Ghoulam, Rafik Halliche, , Mehdi Mostefa; Saphir Taïder, , Nabil Bentaleb; Riyad Mahrez, El Arbi Hillel Soudani, Sofiane Feghouli.
After spending qualifying in a 4-2-3-1, Wilmots had his side in 4-3-3 against the Fennec Foxes, with Tottenham Hotspur winger Nacer Chadli inserted into midfield. That left Belgium with no true passer in the centre -- Axel Witsel and Mousa Dembélé are primarily ball-winners and runners, and nobody really knows what business anyone has playng Chadli through the middle -- and so all of the creativity in the team had to come from the flanks. And since their fullbacks are really out-of-position centre backs, that put the entire playmaking burden on the inside forwards.
Against most teams, the Red Devils have the quality to get away with that in Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, but they were putting themselves in a position where their passing game was both predictable and easy to stop with an organised defence. It's possible that Wilmots was buying into his own hype here as well as underestimating Algeria, because the Fennec Foxes were always going to be capable of shutting down the supply lines out wide.
Algeria set out to nullify the Belgian threat, hounding Hazard and De Bruyne whenever they received the ball and pressing hard in the midfield using their trio of Saphir Taïder, Belgium's inside forwards weren't allowed to drift centrally, and their midfielders didn't have the quality to play properly weighted balls forward to Romelu Lukaku, who had a nightmare of a match but was certainly not helped with the quality of service that came his way.and Nabil Bentaleb.
With only three shots (and one on target), Algeria will be remembered for playing a highly defensive game, but they were showing signs of life before their penalty and probably would have become more aggressive as the game had gone on had they not been holding a 1-0 lead for the better part of an hour. Their defending was noteworthy, however, especially the way the wide players -- Faouzi Ghoulam and Riyad Mahrez on the left; Mehdi Mostefa and Sofiane Feghouli on the right did a superb job shutting Belgium's playmakers down.
The Red Devils had no idea how to break Algeria down, and were reduced to pointless dribbles into the corner and speculative, low-percentage shots -- the mark of a frustrated team.
Substitutions save Belgium
The second half saw Chadli withdrawn for Dries Mertes, who was fielded on the wing with De Bruyne moved inside. This was the lineup everyone was expecting from the Red Devils, but it was only marginally more effective at creating chances than the one we saw in the first half. When de Bruyne was receiving the ball, he was doing so surrounded by a thicket of bodies, and he had real trouble getting anything going with his wide players.
However, de Bruyne's presence in the middle of the pitch forced Algeria to concentrate there, which allowed for a little more freedom down the wing. Mertens made the most of it, and the Fennec Foxes' facade began to shown signs of cracking whenever the Napoli man received the ball on the right.
To make the most of Mertens' presence, Wilmots needed to fix his forwards. He hauled the disastrously ineffective Lukaku off before the hour mark, replacing him with 19-year-old Divock Origi, and then to add more height to the attack he threw on the much-maligned Marouane Fellaini as well.
By now, Belgium were in 4-4-2, with a midfield pairing of De Bruyne and Witsel, Hazard and Mertens as wingers and Fellaini and Origi up top. Fellaini is imperious in the air even if the rest of his game is somewhat lacking, and it came as no surprise when he brought Belgium back into the game with a magnificent header in off the crossbar five minutes after he entered the match.
Algeria get greedy
After spending so long defending, Algeria were too aggressive in chasing the game following Fellaini's equaliser. Belgium are at their best when team come at them and leave space in which their forwards, especially Eden Hazard, can operate, and their 4-4-2 must have given Algeria the impression that a second goal was there for the taking. It definitely wasn't -- aside from Jan Vertonghen's spectacularly ill-judged challenge on Feghouli for the first-half penalty, the Belgian defence hadn't put a foot wrong all evening -- and all Algeria were doing in going forward was playing into the Red Devils' hands.
The winner came from the counterattack. De Bruyne dispossessed Feghouli in brilliant fashion, who quickly cycled the ball up to Hazard. The Chelsea man, leading a three on two break, made the right decision, taking advantage of Origi's decoy run to play a perfectly-weighted pass for Mertens to blast past Raïs M'Bohli at his near post. Following that goal, a win for Belgium was all but assured, and they could easily have padded their lead in the final ten minutes.
This game was billed as a mismatch, but Algeria were never nearly as weak as popularly imagined, and Belgium -- especially the midfield and Lukaku -- showed some real weaknesses that belie their status as Group H favourites. South Korea and Russia will be looking at Belgium's mistakes with great interest, but at this point Algeria have to be considered serious candidates to get out of the group, especially if neither side gets a win in the late game.
Mertens and Origi are obviously the big winners here, and it would not be a surprise to see either get a start on Sunday, when Belgium take on Fabio Capello's Russia.