A superbly taken goal from Chelsea star Eden Hazard ensured there were no slip-ups as Belgium saw off FYR Macedonia by the most slender of margins with a deserved 1-0 win in which they again failed to hit the heights expected of them by so many.
Marc Wilmots made two changes from the win in Skopje – Vincent Kompany returned to skipper the side and Dries Mertens was handed a starting berth with Daniel van Buyten and Marouane Fellaini making way. Eden Hazard began on the right, Mertens on the left with Kevin De Bruyne shifting to the central role he craves.
As expected, the visitors began the away leg of this double-header with a great deal less ambition. The home side were more than content to settle into enjoying the lion’s share of possession and the close control of attacking trio of Mertens, Hazard and De Bruyne promised much in the opening stages.
Unfortunately les Diables Rouges did not build on their dominance of the ball and of territory. Mertens often provided an outlet on the left but not even the Eredivisie’s leading assist provider was bringing the genuine width that may have opened up the resolute Macedonians a lot sooner.
De Bruyne looked reasonably lively in general play but his set-pieces were substandard and he was one of a number of players who were too willing to try their luck from distance, only to invariably find a yellow shirt in the way. Thomas Vermaelen had the best chance of the first half when he “scored” from a rare well-worked set-piece but he was wrongly flagged for offside as the ball had come off a Macedonian head. The recently dropped Arsenal captain had earlier been fortunate to get off scot-free after a high challenge caught Ivanovski on the knee.
The sides reached the interval level and while Belgium were superior, they were by no means convincing, prompting Wilmots to bring off Mertens for Kevin Mirallas. Mertens’ performance may reinforce the view that he is best off the bench but in truth, Hazard and De Bruyne had to stay on due to how well they combine and things needed shaking up.
Nacer Chadli entered the fray ten minutes later in place of Mousa Dembélé but the first goal was proving to be worryingly elusive for de Rode Duivels and it was becoming apparent that a moment of magic or a defensive blunder would be required to break the deadlock. Eden Hazard fired off a warning sign when he struck the bar just before the hour mark. He wasn’t to let the away side off the hook a second time.
What was ultimately the winning goal arrived shortly after. Hazard picked up a poor defensive header from Georgievski, left his markers for dust and fired the ball low, past Pacovski and into the net. It provoked an outpouring of relief and joy in the stands but it didn’t prove to be a springboard for a more coherent attacking display.
Indeed, the Macedonians enjoyed their best spell, creating three chances in quick succession. First, Pandev shot over on his left foot, then Gligorov’s shot initially seemed set for the back of the net but whistled wide and Kompany was then forced to block a shot from Trajkovski, leading to the captain letting his charges know exactly what he thought of their loss of focus.
The nerves were frayed and the nails were bitten but the game ultimately ended 1-0. Nacer Chadli had a good chance on the counter but he was denied by Pacovski and the final whistle was blown moments later. The relief on the Belgian bench was apparent, all the more so with the news that Croatia had come from behind to win in Wales.
As for the goal was undoubtedly Eden Hazard’s best moment in a Belgium shirt. Due to the nature of international football, it is unfair and unrealistic to expect him to consistently dominate games in the manner he has for Lille and Chelsea. However, this double-header against FYR Macedonia has crucially shown that he can be decisive at big moments for his country – that is all we can reasonably ask of the 22-year old, who thoroughly deserved his standing ovation at the end when he was replaced by Fellaini.
Wilmots will no doubt have his concerns with many aspects of the team’s performance, both home and away. However, the overall picture is good with his captain back to full fitness to add reassurance and authority to the backline and his most precocious talent delivering what he is capable of. Furthermore, it’s Belgium’s best ever start to a World Cup qualifying campaign. It’s been a rewarding two weeks with the Under-21 side beating Cyprus 2-0 last night. Belgium are next in action when they go to the USA in late May before their next World Cup qualifier at home to Serbia.