Time for the real Belgium to stand up

They may have a 100 per cent record so far but Marc Wilmots's Rode Duivels have yet to play to their strengths at this World Cup and will need to improve against Argentina
By Kris Voakes in Sao Paulo

Belgium's World Cup campaign has been one long contradiction thus far. They came into the competition being completely overhyped as fifth-favourites, one of the top eight seeds, and a squad full of young stars from all across Europe’s top leagues.

Nobody seemed to take into account their lack of tournament experience, their unknown capabilities in forming well as a group over a lengthy period, nor what their default style of play would be and how that might work in different game scenarios.

Instead people immediately looked at names such as Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens, Kevin De Bruyne and Kevin Mirallas and immediately convinced themselves that the Rode Duivels would be among the tournament’s most exciting teams.

Fast-forward four games and they have racked up a 100 per cent record yet seemingly lost their lustre in the eyes of those who were previously backing them.

Their largely pragmatic approach has been at odds with the comparatively carefree nature of the tournament as a whole, drawing criticism for how they have gone about their business against teams they were expected to beat.

But, with four wins from four, Marc Wilmots has been entirely justified in his decision to play things cautiously and the national coach was quick to point that out after their victory over South Korea in Sao Paulo.

"It’s no easy task to finish the group stage with nine points. It’s a truly historic achievement for Belgium and I’d like to congratulate the staff and all the players,” he told the press.

"We're here to win, not to play beautiful football, and we've accomplished our mission."

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Midfielder Moussa Dembele added that same night that the end justifies the means. “It’s maybe not the sexiest football we’ve shown but we’re very happy with nine points out of nine,” he told Goal.

Even the round of 16 victory over United States has not been enough to quell the murmurings of doubters unhappy at the way they have approached the tournament so far, with many pointing to the fact that they were a Chris Wondolowski miss and an offside flag away from elimination.

But Mirallas told Goal this week that, as the tournament progresses, the qualities that Belgium possess will have more opportunity to come out, allowing the likes of Hazard and Lukaku the kind of space in which they revel at club level.

"It’s true. Earlier in the competition we played teams who played in a very closed way and gave us a great deal of difficulty in playing out attacking game," he admitted.

"It’s true that, against the USA, we had more space to play our attacking game and we were quite a bit more dangerous, we created many chances. So against Argentina it’s certain that they will try to play the game and will try to control the match but, even if we have more space, it will still be a very difficult game for us."

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And he has a point. Only when Jurgen Klinsmann’s side began to smell blood in extra-time did Belgium really begin to get some space in the final third for the first time at this World Cup and they made that work in their favour. So against Argentina, who will look to force the game themselves, finally Wilmots should have some more licence to send his side out in a more attacking manner than has been the case so far.

Being a team that benefits from pace on the counterattack means depending on the opposition wanting to take the game to you as a natural instinct rather than a secondary thought and, as such, taking on Alejandro Sabella’s star-studded side should suit Belgium’s natural game to a tee.

They may have a faultless record in terms of results so far but Saturday’s quarter-final is the first true test of the real Belgium.

If they fail to bring out the best in themselves in Salvador, they will be left wondering what might have happened if only they really gone for it. It is time for one of the World Cup’s most talented groups to show what they are truly made of.

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