With 20 minutes remaining in the Maracana on Sunday, the crowd of just under 74,000 produced a chorus of boos as Belgium failed to sparkle against Russia in Rio de Janeiro.
And just as it had in their Group H opener against Algeria, it took a couple of inspired substitutions from boss Marc Wilmots to swing the tie in the Red Devils’ favour.
With a quarter-of-an-hour to go, Kevin Mirallas entered the fray and was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet when his driven free-kick hit the base of the post late on.
But it was the switch made in the 57th minute that had the greatest impact, with eventual match-winner Divock Origi taking the place of the anonymous Romelu Lukaku.
Origi’s influence and movement was a far cry from what had gone before him, and a lethal finish with just seconds remaining after good work from Eden Hazard proved decisive.
Lukaku’s lack of involvement was clearly a concern for Wilmots, who wasted little time in reorganising his side after the restart. As a result, and for the second game in a row, big questions are being asked of the Chelsea striker.
Still only 21 years old, it’s worth remembering that the forward, who spent a fruitful season on-loan at Everton last term, might not have started in Brazil were it not for Christian Benteke’s injury.
But his performances indicate the competition may be a step too far for the former Anderlecht man at this stage of his career, as he cut an isolated figure in attack.
Against Russia, in a first half devoid of chances, Belgium made inroads through the impressive Dries Mertens—a direct and far more influential replacement for Nacer Chadli.
Kevin De Bruyne also made some penetrating runs from the middle of the park, but all too often Lukaku’s disinterested, almost static approach rendered their efforts pointless.
In his defence, many of Belgium’s big-hitters failed to turn up against Fabio Capello’s men, and it wasn’t until the closing stages that Hazard and Co found their rhythm.
But with his team already through to the knockout stages, it’s difficult to see how Wilmots can justify starting the No. 9 in their final group game against South Korea on Thursday.
He is a manager who knows a thing or two about scoring and is Belgium’s all-time leading goalscorer at the World Cup. But his experience will surely tell him that this is a tournament too soon for Lukaku.
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