Despite dominating the game, Belgium succumbed to a deft Danny Welbeck strike at Wembley, in the first game against England for nearly 13 years.
In Marc Wilmots’ second game as caretaker boss, the Rode Duivels played some nice football but had to face a resilient England team, who were more intent on keeping the ball out of the net. As expected, Wilmots opted to play Eden Hazard in the false nine role – which gave Belgium all the possession they could ever dream of at Wembley, but deprived them of the front man to finish off the chances.
Belgium flooded the midfield and spent most of the game camped outside of England’s box, but Roy Hodgson’s well drilled formation reduced Belgium to mere potshots at goal. 19 in total, further solidifying the notion that they desperately need an out-and-out goalscorer.
Preparations had to be rethought slightly in the warm-up, after captain Vincent Kompany pulled up, clearly pushing himself too much to make a game so close to his heart. Timmy Simons replaced him at the back, and in truth the defence performed better than expected. Whether that was to do with England’s very laid-back approach, it is hard to say.
Of the midfield trio of Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini and Moussa Dembele, it was the Benfica man who shone brightest at Wembley, setting the quick tempo for the team that had Scott Parker chasing them all day long. Witsel recorded a pass completion of 98.1%, phenomenal in the sole defensive role which he kept all day. Fellaini also caused England problems, playing more advanced as a foil for Hazard, but he also riled the opposition with his usual demeanour.
Young Arsenal dynamo Alex Oxlade Chamberlain started on the left for England, and the teenager got the first real opportunity for the home side, skewing a shot wide after good play on the right. He became increasingly tough for the Belgian midfield to track as he switched this way and that, but faded after the initial burst.
The friendly wasn’t without some malicious moments. Dries Mertens was guilty of a rush of blood to the head, pushing Gary Cahill into Joe Hart on a lost cause, a ridiculous error which saw Cahill come off for Joleon Lescott, and off for a precautionary X-ray. Mertens did have a decent game on the wing, switching repeatedly with Eden Hazard as the new Chelsea signing was Belgium’s most creative player. Kevin Mirallas however let the game pass him by.
Belgium dominated much of the first half before the defence went awol like on so many previous occassions. After Moussa Dembele was caught in possession, Manchester United duo Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck combined with Steven Gerrard to put the Three Lions undeservedly ahead. Welbeck finished deftly, lobbing over Sunderland keeper Simon Mignolet, perhaps suggesting he’s the likely candidate to start up top against France. But Belgian’s defence, strong all half, folded at the first real sniff England had in front of goal
The second half was much of the same – Belgium’s midfield numerical advantage in midfield seeing them hold the ball well, but failing to capitalise on that. Soon to be banned Wayne Rooney replaced Welbeck on 52 minutes, dropping deeper and passing well to give Belgium some further problems at the back.
The introduction of Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku 20 minutes from the end gave Belgium another spark and finally a bit of quality up front, but he was a bit too eager with his bustling, irking first Lescott then Hart. The game then descending into end-to-end stuff, first Gillet rattling the post with a long-range drive, before Defoe did likewise. The Tottenham striker almost doubled England’s lead at the death, nearly converting a very smart move by England – their best of the match.
What did we learn?
Not much really. If you’ve seen the Belgium national team for the past year or two, you’d know where the issues lie.
Belgium still have the same problems for Wilmots to sort out. All the flash and possession in the world can’t really help you if you can’t find the back of the net. The front four were great at spreading it wide, Witsel did his part to nullify England’s midfield, orchestrating things in the middle but it didn’t half feel similar to the Montenegro game.
The defence did infinitely better than I suspected. Simons and Gillet don’t often play there, but bar some jitters, it was at least respectable. England didn’t nearly test them enough though.
But given the calibre of opposition, this was an encouraging performance. It may have Wilmots’ first defeat as coach but he got them playing some lovely looking football. After the game, he received backing from Belgium’s technical director Phillippe Colin, suggesting he will get the job full-time. There’s no better option – the players really respect him and from the pressbox yesterday I could see how animated he was getting (mostly at officials).
As for England, well, they were lifeless, uninspiring for the most part yet took their one real chance – a clinical trait this Belgium side need to pick up, and if Romelu Lukaku gets games, everything should come together. Then again it might not. To England’s credit, they’ve shown over the past two games some defensive grit in the midst of injury concerns, but that’s not exactly the performance you want to put in before a tournament. Still, no one else appears to be hitting the ground running either.
Belgium’s next game is against Holland in August, a much bigger test against the neighbours before opening World Cup qualification away in Wales. But for now, there’s the managerial position to fill, countless transfers to be made with these bright starlets and a summer off. Let’s enjoy that.
England (4-4-1-1): Hart, Johnson, Cahill (Lescott 19′), Terry (Jagielka 70′), Cole, Gerrard (Henderson 83′), Milner, Parker, Chamberlain (Walcott 66′), Young (Defoe 66′), Welbeck (Rooney 52′),
Manager – Roy Hodgson
Belgium (4-2-3-1): Mignolet, Gillet, Simons, Vermaelen, Vertonghen, Witsel, Dembele, Mertens (Lukaku 72′), Mirallas (Chadli 59′), Hazard
Manager – Marc Wilmots
Referee – Peter Rasmussen
Att – 85,091
Man of the Match according to the FA – Gerrard. My man of the match for Belgium – Witsel
Editor’s Note – Covering the game live from the pressbox at Wembley was an amazing experience – by far the best part of the blog so far. The game wasn’t great, the experience priceless. Just talking to some Rode Duivels fans on the way in and outside the ground really made appreciate running this blog. Speaking of which, the fans were amazing, so loud and energetic putting England’s to shame. That’s the national team ticked off, a Belgian pilgramage next season is planned.