Desmond Kane

Fellaini regains life purpose in Belgium recovery, but did he impress Van Gaal?

Desmond Kane

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The obituaries were being written with 20 minutes left.

Belgium had passed Algeria off the park for 69 minutes of this Group H match in Belo Horizonte. Yet defeat still beckoned for a squad dripping with quality rich enough to carry off this World Cup.

It was as hard to buy as the belief that Marc Wilmots's aspiring squad are somehow tournament 'dark horses'. Their squad is the envy of these finals. Perhaps the finest. They could well hold the key to the door if their youngsters respond to the heat of expectation.

But winning football matches is easier said than done. The nature of their play was all very neat and tidy until Belgium got themselves within 30 or 40 yards of the African side's goal.

Then they were forced to go sideways and backwards by opponents who were limited in their ambition, but disciplined in their outlook. Trying to cut a dash through 10 men under such sweat-soaked duress can be grilling work.

It all became very sluggish with some of football's most cherished youngsters forced to run up cul-de-sacs. Too slow and predictable was as much down to Algeria's stuffiness as Belgium's shortcomings.

Their play was symbolic of Marouane Fellaini's career in England since Manchester United paid Everton around £27 million to land him last summer. Until Fellaini appeared from the bench, Belgium were staring defeat in the face.

A loss in their opening match of this tournament would have left Belgium facing ignominy as one of the best squads to arrive at a World Cup finals, possibly the greatest, to underachieve on such a grand scale.

Think of Scotland in 1978, Brazil in 1982, Denmark in 1986 or Colombia in 1994 and you understand why this 'Golden Generation' are expected to blossom in Brazil. Belgium could have been heading the same way as Fellaini's downtrodden Old Trafford experience until he headed them the other way.

Belgium are blessed with men in their technical area who can make a real difference. Life changed for them when Mertens, Divock Origi and Fellaini arrived for a toiling trio of Nacer Chadli, Romelu Lukaku and Mousa Dembele.

The much-maligned Fellaini is viewed as a relic by some of his critics, a lumbering representative of David Moyes's failure as the club's manager.

He has yet to score for United. Astonishingly, his last competitive goal came for Everton against Stevenage in a League Cup first round match last August, but he kept his head while others were losing theirs.

After replacing Dembélé in the 55th minute, he managed to drag Belgium 10 or 15 yards up the Estadio Mineirao grass.

Fellaini showed off the facets that made him such a cherished figure at Everton as he rose above the Algeria defence to knock in Kevin De Bruyne's cross with a quite majestic header that Rais MbBolhi could not keep out with the ball piercing the roof of the net.

Late comeback ensures Belgium start with win

The momentum had altered with Napoli's Mertens - who has replaced Chadli on 46 minutes - winning the match for Belgium on 80 minutes when he galloped onto a pass from Eden Hazard to send a rampaging shot into the rigging like a lightning bolt. De Bruyne was again influential by breaking up an Algerian attack.

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The Belgian coach Wilmots scored his country's last goal at a World Cup finals in a 3-2 group win over Russia in 2002. Fellaini has scored the latest.

One wonders what the Dutch coach, and the incoming Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, makes of Fellaini's little cameo? There is a double bonus at these finals for Fellaini: do well for Belgium, and you impress the Dutch.

Football doth have sense of humour.

Media reports suggest United will flog him for £15 million this summer. A move to cut their losses. If he is not to have a future at United, there is no better shop window than Brazil.

Jan Vertonghen was perhaps the figure most relieved about such happenings. He had said prior to what was supposed to Belgium's first flowering of these finals that he was the "worst bench-sitter" in the world. At times, he isn't game's cleverest full-back.

The Tottenham Hotspur defender has been forced to occupy a left-back berth due to figures such as Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen and Daniel van Buyten circulating him for a spot in defence.

"I realise I’ll never be the best left-back in the world, but I can be of value for the team," he had said.

Sadly for Belgium, those proved to be prophetic words. Vertonghen could have been sleeping on the bench after a few Duvals for all the good he did when Belgium shipped the first goal on 24 minutes.

Sofiane Feghouli dashed onto a pass with Vertonghen appearing to have momentarily conked out. He bundled Feghouli to the ground before Feghouli picked him up from the deck to slot the penalty.

Algeria looked destined to achieve one of the tournament's greatest upsets, but Belgium are are not among the favourites for nothing. They found a way to win. Fellaini found a way to redemption. The great teams tend to.

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