Time for the real Belgium to stand up

The Belgians may have a 100 percent record so far, but Marc Wilmots and his side have yet to play to their strengths at this World Cup.
SAO PAULO - Belgium’s World Cup campaign has been one long contradiction thus far.

The team came into the competition being completely over hyped as fifth-favorite, 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 the lack of tournament experience, the unknown capabilities in forming well as a group over a lengthy period, nor what the 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 convinced themselves that the Red Devils would be among the tournament’s most exciting outfits.

Fast-forward four games, and the side has racked up a 100 percent record yet seemingly lost its luster in the eyes of those who were previously backing it.

The largely pragmatic approach has been at odds with the comparatively carefree nature of the tournament as a whole, drawing criticism for how the team has gone about its business against teams it was 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 the 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,” said Wilmots. "We're here to win, not to play beautiful football, and we've accomplished our mission."

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 USA has not been enough to quell the murmurings of doubters unhappy at the way the team has approached the tournament so far, with many pointing to the fact that the Belgians 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 Belgium possess will have more opportunity to come out, allowing the likes of Hazard and Lukaku the kind of space they revel in 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 our 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."

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 the team made that work in its favor. So against Argentina, which will look to force the game, 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.

The Belgians may have a faultless record in terms of results so far, but Saturday’s quarterfinal is the first true test of the real Belgium.

If the team fails to bring out its best in Salvador, it will be left wondering what might have happened if only the players had 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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