Belgium moved back to the top of World Cup Qualifying Group A on goal difference after an important 0-2 away win in Skopje against FYR Macedonia. Having overcome a shaky start, goals from Kevin De Bruyne and an Eden Hazard penalty made it four wins from five qualifiers and three clean sheets away from home.
Marc Wilmots sprung no surprises with his team selection as Vincent Kompany was not risked. Marouane Fellaini returned to the midfield with Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard in support of Christian Benteke.
The Macedonians have a reputation for starting quickly and they would have taken a first minute lead through an Adis Jahovic header were it not for an outstanding piece of goalkeeping from the alert Thibaut Courtois, who deserved the resulting slice of good fortune. Moments later, the unmarked Ivan Trickovski headed wide from a free kick as Belgium failed to learn their lesson.
Belgium’s first real opportunity came through a low shot from Christian Benteke but the Aston Villa man had a disappointing opening 45 minutes summed up by one lay off going 30 yards downfield to a Macedonian. His inability to hold the ball up meant that les Diables Rouges were unable to keep hold of the ball for long enough inside the Macedonian half.
Toby Alderweireld stung the palms of Macedonian goalkeeper Tome Pacovski and Benteke shot hopelessly wide. The home side remained dangerous throughout and the visitors kept the game scoreless thanks to Thibaut Courtois, who was showing the form that led him to go 820 minutes without conceding a goal at home in the league for Atletico Madrid.
De Rode Duivels took the lead after 25 minutes after superb work from Kevin De Bruyne. The Werder Bremen man dispossessed Aleksandar Lazevski and drove into the penalty box before firing the ball low past a surprised Pacovski, who had fatally left his near post unguarded. It was a goal that showcased the ex-Genk man’s industry as well as his ability to be decisive for both club and country.
Belgium took a fragile 0-1 lead into the dressing room at half-time as the home side continued to come forward and test the reflexes of Courtois ; Pandev should have equalised straight from the kick off after the first goal. Marc Wilmots would have to inspire his side to their habitual improved second-half showing.
The early signs were good after the resumption with Belgium enjoying territorial dominance over their opponents and more sustained periods of possession, in part thanks to a move proactive midfield and an improved Benteke.
Eden Hazard then produced one of his best moments in a Belgium shirt. He went through the gears and drove infield into the box, played a 1-2 with Marouane Fellaini before being fouled inside the box. The Chelsea man did the honours himself and calmly sent Pacovski the wrong way in a nerveless manner reminiscent of his spot kick against Slovakia last month.
Fellaini was then counting his lucky stars as his elbow went unpunished as it was unseen by the German referee Deniz Aytekin, who was fortunately less attentive than Dembélé. However, there was no criticising Aytekin when he correctly booked Ivanovski for simulation inside the penalty box after the forward claimed he had been brought down by Vermaelen. It was a superb call under pressure and due credit must be given.
De Bruyne and Fellaini spurned late chances to score a third and the persistent and impressive Ibraimi will surely have nightmares about Courtois, who foiled him yet again in the closing stages. Nacer Chadli continued his return from injury with a late cameo appearance in place of Christian Benteke, who improved a little in the second half and was unfortunate not to win a penalty for his side.
The final whistle came as a great relief for the visitors, who had been wary of a potential banana skin in Skopje. De Bruyne has unquestionably played his way into the team for the foreseeable future while Courtois gave yet another outstanding performance that will have top clubs all over Europe banging down Chelsea’s door.
At times the defence lacked a leader but it’s possible that Vincent Kompany will return on Tuesday but it’s worth pointing out once again that as it stands, Vermaelen is a more commanding presence for country than for club – one for Wenger and Gunners fans to ponder. The midfield began to exert more influence after the break but the disappointing performance of Benteke is a slight concern though Romelu Lukaku is waiting in the wings.
It was a welcome and an important win but with Croatia making no mistakes earlier against Serbia, tonight’s victory must serve as a springboard for an encore on Tuesday night in Brussels and not a ready-made excuse for complacency.