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Can Belgium click in time for the knockout stages?

Everybody’s dark horses Belgium have flattered to deceive at this World Cup. After an excellent qualifying campaign where the less famous ‘Red Devils’ went unbeaten and gave fans and punters alike plenty to think about, displays from the Belgians have been so far disappointing.

A second-half cameo from the much-maligned Marouane Fellaini proved the catalyst for getting past a stubborn Alergia, while a lacklustre showing against a tiring Russian side almost resulted in dropping points. That said, the Group H favourites are already through to the second round despite these less than satisfactory displays. It has been said many times that the mark of a great team is winning while playing poorly – a mantra that was often applied to another set of Red Devils. However, to move past the last 16 of the World Cup there is no doubt performances from this Belgian side will have to drastically improve.

With a squad that boasts some of the Premier League’s best talents in Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany, amongst a host of other highly talented footballers, big things were expected of this Belgian brigade. One big blow to the squad was the loss of Christian Benteke, who made seven appearances scoring two goals in qualifying. It probably would have been a close run thing between the Aston Villa star and Romelu Lukaku for the number 9 shirt. Now, with Lukaku turning in two wholly dissatisfactory performances, coach Marc Wilmots has been forced to throw the untested Divock Origi into the mix on the biggest stage of all.

Lukaku’s performances have been one of many areas of frustration. After a somewhat inconsistent season on loan at Everton, where the powerhouse forward could go multiple games without scoring, this sort of form has been replicated at the World Cup. It seems a definite that young Lille forward Origi will now start in the lone forward role against South Korea, and should he sufficiently impress his manager then in all likelihood Lukaku will be looking at being Belgium’s second-choice striker without Benteke even being in Brazil. Not a wonderful situation for a player that is possibly looking for a big-money move once the World Cup is over.

Apart from the Lukaku issue, Belgium have seemed disjointed and ponderous on the field. With the pace and technical ability of their forward players, you would expect to see this Belgian side really ripping up defences and creating scoring opportunities galore. This has clearly not been the case with both Algeria and Russia, two of the weaker sides in the tournament, proving very difficult to break down for de Rode Duivels. In particular the Russia game really looked like it would prove a stalemate until the Russian players tired severely in the closing stages. That is to take nothing away from Hazard who produced a moment of utter brilliance to create the chance which Origi put away emphatically.

Belgium only managed to create ten chances against Russia, with a decent percentage of these coming in the final fifteen minutes after Kevin Mirallas was introduced and there was finally some energy and aggression injected into the performance. Only two shots on target out of twelve is a measure of the inefficiency of Belgium’s displays so far and also a sign that desperation may be creeping in with long-range efforts replacing attempts to get the ball to key players. If Belgium are to overturn their poor showings so far it is imperative they begin games the way they ended against Russia – quick, intelligent attacking play by way of getting the ball rapidly forward to Hazard, De Bruyne, Mertens and Mirallas in positions high up the field. If they can begin flowing forward in unison and terrorising opposition defences while addressing a few defensive frailties, this Belgian side can really live up to their dark horse billing.

The identity of Belgium’s second-round opponent is still very much unclear. Germany are certainly expected to beat the USA, which would mean Belgium facing one of Ghana, Portugal, or the United States. Any of these teams represent a significantly tougher test than Belgium have faced yet at the tournament. A team the Belgian side have drawn many comparisons with in terms of performance level is one of the pre-tournament favourites, Argentina. Much like Belgium, the Argentinians turned in two unspectacular, passive performances which were both lit up with flashes of brilliance from Lionel Messi. However, they turned this around against Nigeria last night with an excellent attacking display. Belgium will be hoping they will be again compared with Argentina by turning up the heat against South Korea and getting into their attacking stride in time for the second round.  Should they achieve this, Belgium will be once again highly fancied to progress to the latter stages of the World Cup.

Colm Hayes, Pundit Arena.

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