Following their qualification for the Round of 16 of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ with three wins in as many matches, the talk emanating from the Belgian camp was generally positive. But it was only after their hard-fought victory over a resilient USA side on Tuesday that their players admitted that those group-stage displays had left a lot to be desired.
“We weren’t all that impressive, because we were too tense. We couldn’t get into our rhythm against the compact units that we came up against,” said Kevin Mirallas, who made a considerable impact when he came off the bench on the hour mark versus USA.
Although it took 30 minutes of extra time to separate Les Diables Rouges and the Stars and Stripes in Salvador, it did not take long for the Europeans to show their true capabilities.
They set the tone as early as the opening minute, as Divock Origi brought a fine save out of Tim Howard, one of many the Everton goalkeeper was forced to make on the night. The statistics spoke for themselves: 38 shots, 27 of which were on target.
“We were impressive going forward. Their ’keeper kept them in it,” remarked Vincent Kompany. The commanding centre-back is well aware that expectations surrounding this crop of Belgian players are huge, and that their performances in the group phase left many disappointed.
As befits his role of captain, he was quick to defend his team-mates, pointing out that their previous opponents had adopted a different approach from the USA.
“You need two teams to produce an exciting match. The Americans tried to push forward. That’s all we were asking for. It takes two to tango, and today they wanted the same thing as us,” he explained.
“The United States came out to win the match rather than avoid defeat. We were then able to take advantage of the extra space,” confirmed Kevin De Bruyne, who opened the scoring in the third minute of extra time and put in a fine all-round performance, linking well with Eden Hazard in particular. “It was a real pleasure to play such free-flowing football,” he added.
For Daniel Van Buyten, the only deficiency was his team-mates’ inability to finish. “We should have killed any suspense in the game early on,” he said, nevertheless content with the general style of play. “We showed that we can play football. We weren’t forced into a battle of nerves; instead, it came down to the physical and technical side of things.”
Romelu Lukaku had experienced frustration in his first two World Cup outings versus Algeria and Russia, and was then subsequently left on the bench by coach Marc Wilmots. After coming on as substitute in extra time, the powerful attacker got back to business, making dangerous runs and scoring his country’s crucial second goal.
“I almost cried after my goal. It was the greatest moment of my life. Scoring at the World Cup at the age of 21 is something I’ve trained for since I was a boy,” he said, his voice full of emotion.
Belgian thoughts will now turn to Saturday’s quarter-final, where they will meet Argentina, another team that is unlikely to sit back and defend. “If they decide to play their usual attacking game, we’ll have a pretty good chance against them,” said Kompany.