The much-maligned midfielder emerged from the bench to change the course of the game against Algeria, revelling in a role much more suited to his talentsBy Ben Hayward at the Estadio Mineirao
Marouane Fellaini was a happy man. After a difficult season at Manchester United, the midfielder was forced to begin Belgium's World Cup campaign on the bench on Tuesday, but it was his introduction which changed the course of the game against Algeria. Without him, all looked lost.
Much maligned at Old Trafford, Fellaini is a cult hero for Belgium fans. Many wore wigs in tribute to the 26-year-old's astonishing afro; others sang songs in his honour before kick-off. They loved him before the match. Now they adore him.
Belgium had been tipped to make waves at this World Cup, their first since 2002, but Marc Wilmots' men made hard work of the first half and found themselves behind after Jan Vertonghen gave away a needless penalty and Valencia's Sofiane Feghouli converted from the spot.
Algeria's disciplined defence dealt comfortably with the Europeans after that and unsurprisingly, the ineffective Nacer Chadli was replaced at half-time by Dries Mertens. Striker Romelu Lukaku was withdrawn next, short of the hour mark, having failed to touch the ball a single time inside the Algeria area.
But it was the third substitution which woke up Belgium. Mousa Dembele departed and Fellaini came on to line up alongside Axel Witsel in midfield and the Manchester United man immediately improved the Red Devils - something which wasn't said very often at his club last season.
Fall guy | Fellaini flopped in a deeper role for United last seasonFellaini adopted the role of a central striker when Belgium had the ball and dropped deep into midfield when Algeria were in possession. His aerial and physical presence clearly unsettled the North Africans and the more direct approach soon paid dividends as the 26-year-old headed home Kevin De Bruyne's superb cross to equalise after 70 minutes.
And 10 minutes later, the comeback was complete. De Bruyne won back possession, Eden Hazard advanced and squared for Mertens to smash home the winner in a hard-fought 2-1 success. It was harsh on Algeria, but Belgium's quality eventually told.
None of it would have happened, however, without Fellaini.
"I was on the bench but that's the coach's decision," he said after the game. "We have a lot of great players. I was happy to score the goal. It was a great cross from De Bruyne and it gave us confidence. We found our rhythm much more after that.
"At the moment I am just focused on Belgium and I'm happy to have scored."
"We had some difficulties and were taking too many touches of the ball," Hazard said. "Algeria are a solid team and they made it really difficult, but after Marouane's goal we were much better. The equaliser changed the game."Afterwards, former England striker Gary Lineker joked on Twitter: "Manchester United should sign the Fellaini that plays for Belgium."
At Old Trafford, the 26-year has often been used just in front of the defence. He is no deep-lying playmaker, however, and that showed. His poor performances last season and the fact United had paid Everton €32 million for his services saw the midfielder widely ridiculed by fans of rival clubs as the team toiled and ended up in seventh spot.
But Tuesday's cameo proved he can be extremely effective when utilised correctly. At Everton, he hit 12 goals in 36 appearances from an attacking midfield position in 2012-13 (compared to none in 21 games last term). There, his aerial ability and impressive movement caused problems aplenty for rival defences, just as it did at the Mineirao on Tuesday.
So Belgium showed Manchester United just what they were missing - and whether Fellaini stays or leaves Old Trafford this summer, he'll surely be restored to his rightful role next season.