In a night where nothing went to plan, Belgium let three vital points slip late on against Azerbaijan, all but ending their chances of qualifying for Euro 2012.
The pre-match discussion focused on the state of the pitch at the Tofig Bahramov Republican stadium in Baku, with the Belgian media referring to it as a ‘cow-field’. Sure enough, the grass was terrible but so was Belgium’s attitude. Many pundits expected an emphatic victory whilst Vincent Kompany urged for a calmer approach, recognising that group rivals Turkey had lost here previously.
Leekens selected an all-foreign side for the game, with no player from the Jupiler Pro League featuring from the start. In truth, Belgium started the better side, with in-form Dries Mertens and the returning Eden Hazard (who was replacing the unfit Moussa Dembele) providing speed and wizardry on the wings. Hazard had made up with Leekens after their spat and looked very lively throughout the game.
Despite all their early domination, Azerbaijan still looked threatening on the break. The first golden chance though fell to Mertens who caught the home team napping. He broke free with blistering pace and was one-on-one with goalkeeper Agayev, but fluffed his square pass to Romelu Lukaku, when he really should have shot himself.
The less said about the day for Lukaku the better. Dropped from Chelsea’s Champions League squad, the former Anderlecht striker looked completely out of his depth up front, rarely featuring in the action. You could place that down to the great defensive performance, as the centre-back pairing of Sadygov and Allahverdiyev marked him out of the game. Berti Vogts set his team out to stifle the Belgians, making the game feel very congested in the middle of the pitch.
Chances were fleeting in the first half, but the next opportunity was created by Hazard. The Lille winger put in a teasing cross which Axel Witsel headed straight at the keeper. The Benfica man was unmarked and should have done better, but he was another bright spark in a fairly dismal first half.
After the break, Azerbaijan had their first real chance as Aliyev’s diving header went just wide. But this merely ignited the Belgian attack. In the 53rd minute, Hazard and Witsel linked up beautifully as the Lille man entered the penalty area and he was hacked down by captain Sadygov. Referee Lee Probert deemed that he hadn’t touched the ball, the correct decision. Timmy Simons on his 85th cap put away the penalty. Not one of his best but enough against the despairing Agayev.
It only got worse for Agayev as he made a fool out of himself, falling over the advertising hoarding letting the ball run out of play. But it was the Belgian slipped up next. Marouane Fellaini (who looked unfit) and Toby Alderweireld both had chances to double the lead before the equaliser came in the 86th minute. Mahir Shukurov’s deep cross deflected off Nicolas Lombaerts, giving it the perfect trajectory to find Aliyev, heading it past Mignolet.
A hammer blow for Belgium and that’s how it stayed. The result was made worse by Turkey’s win against Kazakhstan – Arda Turan scoring the winner in the 97th minute, lifting them into the coveted second place in Group A, a point clear with a game in hand against Austria on Tuesday. Mathematically it isn’t over, but it sure feels like it. Georges Leekens claimed the team should have killed the game off in the first half with their pressure, but it never happened. The coach himself didn’t opt to change things either, only taking off the woeful Lukaku.
Captain Vincent Kompany said “With a little more experience we would have 4 or 5 points more in this campaign. We now have to solve as a group.”
Sure enough, Euro 2012 may have come too soon for this group but they have had the time to gel as a unit. At times, Belgium have looked great in the campaign but too often has this not been the case. Certainly in this game, they lacked presence up front and possibly more guile in midfield, although Hazard, Mertens and Witsel shouldn’t be faulted. Better finishing and less naiviety would have seen the home,
It’s over in the campaign but the team returns home to Brussels to host the United States on Tuesday. The focus now switches to that game and beyond.
Azerbaijan – Agayev, Sadygov (c), Allahverdiyev, Abishov (Amirguliyev 65′), Shukurov, Nabiyev, Huseynov, Chertoganov (Subasic 83′), Ismayilov (Mammadov 58′), Javadov, Aliyev
Unused Subs – Popovich, Melikov, Yunisoglu, Sadygov
Manager – Berti Vogts
Belgium – Mignolet, Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen, Lombaerts, Simons, Fellaini, Witsel, Mertens, Hazard, Lukaku (De Camargo 61′)
Unused Subs – Gillet, Ciman, Hubert, Odjidja, Vossen, Van Damme
Manager – Georges Leekens
Tagged Axel Witsel, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Beri Vogts, Chelsea, Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard, Euro 2012, georges leekens, Igor De Camargo, Lee Probert, Moussa Dembele, Rauf Aliyev, Romelu Lukaku, Timmy Simons, Vincent Kompany