Marc Wilmots and Louis van Gaal’s first game in charge of their respective nations will live long in the memory as Dries Mertens proved to be the star of the show in a 4-2 victory for Belgium against rivals and neighbours the Netherlands. The PSV man has made himself virtually undroppable despite only beginning on the bench, contributing the equaliser to make it 2-2 and two assists to boot.
After a nervous start at the back for the home side, Belgium took the lead on 20 minutes much to the delight of the home supporters. Kevin Mirallas cut in from the left and once in the box, he let fly. Though his shot was deflected, it fell to Christian Benteke, who neatly sidestepped the lunging Mathijsen before keeping his cool to slot home past Maarten Stekelenburg. It was a well-taken goal from the in-form Racing Genk striker, who has attracted interest from Trabzonspor. His contribution earlier in the attack – receiving the ball into feet and laying it off – should also not go unnoticed.
The Dutch came close to an equaliser on the stroke of half-time. The lively Arjen Robben raced in behind the defence and squared the ball to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar who stroked the ball into the vacant goal, however, the offside flag had somewhat belatedly been raised. As had been revealed yesterday, Louis van Gaal granted debuts at half-time to defensive trio Nick Viergever (AZ), Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan De Vrij (both of Feyenoord) as well as AZ’s brilliant midfielder Adam Maher. Toby Alderweireld came on for Daniel van Buyten but it was the Dutch who came out of the blocks much quicker after the break.
Belgium failed to heed the warning signs and when Robben’s dangerous cross between goalkeeper and defence was missed by Huntelaar, new PSV man Luciano Narsingh blasted high into the net from close range. Barely a minute later, there was chaos at the back for Belgium when the jet-heeled Robben exposed a suicidally high defensive line. He cut the ball back for Huntelaar, who in the nick of time beat Vermaelen to the ball and scored. The Arsenal defender’s anger was clear to see when he proceeded to give the post a good kicking.
To his credit, Wilmots responded and hauled off the perennially disappointing Eden Hazard for Moussa Dembélé. And how it paid off. The much vaunted Fulham man added the thrust in midfield and drove his team on in search of an equaliser. The leveller came on 75 minutes from fellow substitute Dries Mertens, who ruthlessly punished Nigel De Jong’s poor touch by striding forward and beating Stekelenburg at his near post.
Just as the Dutch had done earlier in the half, Belgium delivered another goal in quick succession, which also has to be put down to even more comical play from the Dutch goalkeeper and his defence. Lukaku did well to lay the ball off to Mertens, whose seemingly innocous shot was inexplicably spilled by Stekelenburg. Mertens caught the rookie Dutch defence, comprising four debutants, napping and squared the ball for Lukaku, who could not fail to score.
New Spurs signing Jan Vertonghen added the icing on the cake with ten minutes of normal time to play. Mertens again was instrumental, peeling away from his full-back down the left to meet a sumptious De Bruyne cross-field ball. He then found Vertonghen who slid the ball past Stekelenburg, whose form fell away as the game wore on having earlier made good saves from De Bruyne and Chadli.
Positives for Belgium:
Thibaut Courtois made some excellent saves and was also an assuring presence under the high ball. Even among a squad as talented as Belgium’s, he stands out along with Kompany and Witsel. He is too good to be left out. Jan Vertonghen at times played a little too narrowly for my liking, which helped Narsingh though this is to be expected from a centre-half. He was superb going forward and over the 90 minutes built upon his good showing against England. Moussa Dembélé was a catalyst for the second-half revival with his ability to bring his side further up the pitch and win free-kicks. Dries Mertens was superb in attack, proving decisive and playing without fear to score and lay on two assists.
Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku both displayed a great deal of confidence. Lukaku has been rejuvenated by the loan move to West Brom and the competition from fellow goalscorer Benteke. When the ex-Anderlecht man came on, he was strong, bouncing off defenders but also aware of those around him. At times he was like a man possessed and this is a real boost for the national team. However, Benteke’s more consistent form week-in, week-out means he still deserves the nod for me but we’ll see how things progress between now and Wales.
Negatives for Belgium:
Eden Hazard once again flattered to deceive at international level. He was played out on the flank with Nacer Chadli in a central role. Wilmots said before this friendly that he would decide how to deploy Hazard on a game by game and opponent by opponent basis. This should be borne in mind when examining Wilmots’ justification for picking the FC Twente man. Chadli, a physically stronger player with more discipline, was preferred against the pitbull-like Nigel De Jong. Wilmots also said his tactical plan was to man-mark in midfield. Thus, he felt that Hazard was not ready to play at 10. This could change in the future and he is likely to become stronger and more robust after a few months with Chelsea.
Hazard should not be afforded an automatic spot in either midfield or the forward line irrespective of his club form or his £30m transfer. International football remains in my view a step up and there are others who have shown themselves to be more adept at delivering good performances for the Rode Duivels. Yes, we know he had a slight injury worry and perhaps the start of the Premier League season was at the back of his mind but this is the continuation of a long-running trend, just without the premature burger outside the stadium this time (though it’s not surprising that a former star like Wilmots will be better able to handle Hazard than Leekens ever was).
The defence was also cut open on far too many occasions. Wilmots pointed out that more than the defensive line, what cost them goals was that they were retreating and not coming forward, thereby being caught on the back foot. Gillet showed typical tenacity against Robben and was alert at times to cover for his team-mates but was also caught out for pace (most would v Robben) and positioning. Kompany will bring leadership and organisation to the Belgian back line.
Wilmots is refusing to be carried away on a tidal wave of optimism. He knows that in the second half, les Diables Rouges were up against an Oranje defence of rookies. And while it was welcome to see a number of players step up to the plate in the absence of Vincent Kompany and Marouane Fellaini, it’s only when we enter the World Cup qualifiers will we know if anything has changed. We can all bask in the enjoyment of a thoroughly entertaining clash for a little while at least but the real acid test is performing and winning when the stakes are at their highest.