The European nation breezed through the group stage, picking up all nine points, but the star-studded side struggled to find the net.
SAO PAULO – Thursday evening at Arena Corinthians, the members of the Belgium national team became one of the last teams to complete the group stage at the 2014 World Cup. And when they were done, they were imperfectly perfect. They all were aware. They arrived at the precise destination they expected by a route that did not resemble the one they planned.
“We’re happy. It’s maybe not the sexiest football that we’ve shown,” midfielder Moussa Dembele said, “but we’re happy with nine out of nine.”
Nine out of nine: three games, three victories, all worth three points. But, you know, “Grown Ups 2” and “The Godfather, Part II” both are movie sequels. It doesn’t mean they have equal artistic value.
Although Belgium won its group and qualified for Tuesday’s round of 16 matchup with the United States, the inability to score more than four goals in three World Cup games had every player who spoke to reporters following a 1-0 victory over South Korea feeling at least a little repentant.
They’d arrived in Brazil with gobs of attacking talent, starting with the magical Eden Hazard and continuing on through their lineup. Their players are essential members of the most prestigious clubs in Europe: Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Atletico Madrid. The lineup they fielded in their Group H opener against Algeria could be worth roughly $362 million as transfers, according to the UK website Transfermarkt, with millions more on the bench.
So why were there so few chances, so few goals, so few moments when Belgium appeared to live up to its pre-Cup reputation as a darkhorse pick to advance deep into the tournament?
“I think we can play better, but we have nine out of nine. We can be proud of that. Now we have to play better, but the result is what counts,” defender Toby Alderweireld said. “I think we can give more. Defensively is OK, organized very good. In attacking we can show more – we have a lot of quality there.”
Alderweireld said the issue in the first two group games, against Algeria and Russia, is "the teams go back, go back” – they were packing it in defensively, fearing Belgium’s talent. That was clearer in the Algeria opener, in which Belgium came from behind to win 2-1, than the 1-0 win over the Russians. Belgium managed a 10-1 advantage in shots on goal in the opener against Algeria, but possession and chances were relatively equal in the second game.
Coach Marc Wilmots sent out mostly reserves for the group finale, preferring to rest stars such as Hazard and striker Romelu Lukaku (injured defender Vincent Kompany also sat out), and that team wound up down a man near the end of the first half after midfielder Steven Defour received a straight red card for landing with his studs on the leg of Korea’s Kim Shinwook. Defour will miss the U.S. game, but was unlikely to be a factor.
“Every game we win, we have more and more confidence, of course,” Dembele said. Against Korea it “was a bit difficult for the second half. It was a lot of defending. But at the end, we were positive.”
Confidence is an important element for the Belgium team, because as rich as they are in coveted talent, only one member of the team has played in a previous World Cup. Belgium also did not appear at the 2012 European Championship. So everything that happens here is entirely new to these players, including the pressure of trying to advance past the round of 16.
Belgium seems to be minting new stars by the day, with 19-year-old reserve midfielder Adnan Januzaj emerging to make the roster after one season with Man U’s regulars and 19-year-old Divock Origi exploding as a super-sub in this World Cup. He’s come on in the second half of all three games, scoring the only goal in the Russia victory and creating Jan Vertonghen’s goal with a hard strike that generated a rebound for Vertonghen to punch in the net.
When the U.S. lines up Tuesday against Belgium, at least three members of the American team will have started in a World Cup knockout game – forward Clint Dempsey, midfielder Michael Bradley and goalkeeper Tim Howard. It could be four, if striker Jozy Altidore were able to recover from his hamstring strain in time to play.
The average age of Belgium’s lineup for the opener against Algeria was 25, and that was with 36-year-old defender Daniel van Buyten in the mix.
“In tournament, it’s difficult for a lot of players because it's their first time playin in the World Cup,” forward Kevin Mirallas told Goal/Sporting News. “It’s different in the USA, a lot of players play in the World Cup. I think it’s very different for Belgium.
“The new generation of Belgium have very good talent, but don't have the good experience at the good tournament. Only Van Buyten played at the World Cup before. A lot of players don’t play Champions League, don’t play UEFA, but a lot of players play very well. I think we’re excited for this.”