x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Marouane Fellaini’s hero turn illustrates Belgium depth

After Belgium's 2-1 win over Algeria, Marc Wilmots rightly placed the praise on his bench, who showed 'the same level of desire as the starters'. Andy Mitten reports.

Marouane Fellaini celebrates his equaliser against Algeria for Belgium in their 2014 World Cup Group H match on Tuesday. Martin Bureau / AFP / June 17, 2014
Marouane Fellaini celebrates his equaliser against Algeria for Belgium in their 2014 World Cup Group H match on Tuesday. Martin Bureau / AFP / June 17, 2014

The Belgium coach Marc Wilmots thought about the long game before his side began their first World Cup finals match in 12 years.

In the weeks leading up to the tie, he spoke not of his prodigiously talented Eden Hazard, Adnan Januzaj or Romelu Lukaku, but of his bench.

Click here to visit The National’s World Cup 2014 landing page

“Half our winning goals in the qualifiers were by substitutes,” he said. “I tend to focus just as much on those that aren’t playing. I want my substitutes to show the same level of desire as the starters.”

Some saw his words as disingenuous, a ploy to placate the egos in his dressing room ahead of them being dropped.

Against Algeria in Belgium’s World Cup opener, he was right. His players enjoyed more possession in the first half, but they were underwhelming and the hype that had greeted talent-laden Belgium looked misguided.

Algeria had pressures of their own and needed to score in the first 36 minutes to avoid the ignominy of breaking Bolivia’s record of 517 minutes without a World Cup goal.

When Valencia winger Sofiane Feghouli scored a 25th-minute penalty, it was their first in 10 World Cup matches spanning three tournaments, dating to Mexico 1986.

Wilmots always knew that he had a talented bench, and after the ineptitude of some of his starting 11 – Lukaku did not touch the ball once in the opposition area in the first period – his two substitutes saved the day with superb finishes to come from behind and win 2-1.

“[In the] changing room I wrote down on the board: ‘The bench will make the difference’. And the bench made the difference,” Wilmots said.

Reserves Marouane Fellaini provided the equalising header in the 70th minute before Dries Mertens had time to find his spot with a 79th-minute winner after Belgian counter attacked.

“I’m happy for Marouane, not just because I’m one of his good friends, but because it has been a long time that he didn’t score,” said his Manchester United teammate Adnan Januzaj, who also started on the bench. “He has not scored since I have played alongside him.”

Fellaini’s last goal came for Everton against Stevenage in the English League Cup in August 2013, before his £27 million (Dh168.2m) transfer to Old Trafford.

Algeria coach Vahid Halilhodzic rightly opined that his players should feel no shame. His side were applauded off the pitch by their vocal 5,000 travelling supporters. They had not disappointed, just run out of steam.

“The most important thing today was the victory. It’s important to win the first game,” Fellaini said. “And for the second game, it will be good for the confidence. My performance was OK. I scored a goal and the bench made the difference. It was a big impact from the bench.”

Belgium have never been able to draw on reserves of such quality. Now they are one of the team’s greatest assets.

sports@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter @SprtNationalUAE