BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — Just when it looked like the World Cup “dark horses” were about to turn up lame, Belgium turned on the power in the final straight to overcome Algeria 2-1.
Trailing to Sofiane Feghouli’s first half penalty, Belgium, tipped by many to reach the later stages of the tournament, hit back in impressive fashion.
Marouane Fellaini, derided for much of the season following a nightmare year at Manchester United, headed home an equalizer with 20 minutes remaining after entering the fray as a substitute.
And Belgium sealed victory with 10 minutes left when Dries Mertens rounded off a stylish counter-attack to snatch victory.
Much has been made of Marc Wilmots’ side being dubbed as the tournament’s “Dark Horses” but this is a nation which has not qualified for the World Cup since 2002.
While the talent at Wilmots’ disposal cannot be questioned, the side’s ability to cope with the pressure on the world’s biggest stage remained something of a mystery.
For the past year, since Belgium clinched its place at the World Cup, experts have lined up to lavish praise on the country’s “golden generation”.
The new generation, woven together from the country’s immigrant communities, has brought about a new sense of unity within Belgium.
Its captain, Vincent Kompany, was born in Brussels to parents of Congolese descent, while Romelu Lukaku, the striker, comes from a similar background.
The likes of Fellaini and Nacer Chadli have Moroccan heritage, while Adnan Januzaj, the precociously talented Manchester United player, has Kosovan and Albanian blood.
And yet, while Belgium boast undoubted talent, its players have hardly excelled in European competition this year.
While goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois enjoyed a stellar season with Atletico Madrid, winning the Spanish title and finishing second in the Champions League, and Kompany won the Premier League with Manchester City, their compatriots have not been so fortunate.
Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen has spent most of the year as a substitute, while Fellaini has become a figure of fun following a number of disappointing displays at club level.
Then there is the Tottenham triumvirate of Jan Vertonghen, Nacer Chadli and Mousa Dembele, all of whom have struggled for consistency in the Premier League.
Add to that the absence of injured Aston Villa striker Christian Benteke and the fitness doubts surrounding Romelu Lukaku, and it’s easy to see why the hype soon began to cloud the reality.
And yet, despite its problems, Belgium was still expected to deal with an Algeria side which has been widely dismissed by fans and pundits alike.
But in Feghouli, Algeria has a player who can deliver when his side needs him most.
The 24-year-old, born in France, represented the country of his birth at under-18 and under-21 level but never managed to make the step up to the first team.
Now at Spanish club Valencia, Feghouli has begun to attract the attention his talent deserves and this latest performance would have done his reputation no harm at all.
His strike, which came from the penalty spot after 24 minutes, sealed a historic win for an Algeria side which has never qualified from the group stage in its past three attempts.
The goal came following a moment of madness from Vertonghen, who pulled Feghouli to the ground when a calm head was needed.
Ranked 22nd in the world, Algeria is Africa’s top team according to FIFA — and while it struggled to pose much of an attacking threat, it looked relatively untroubled by the Belgians.
A halftime lead was no less than it deserved following a resilient display in which the defense coped admirably with its opponents.
Belgium, blessed with an array of attacking talent, looked stumped in its attempts to open up the Algerian defense.
It wasn’t until the 66th minute that it created a real opportunity when Divock Origi, on as substitute for the disappointing Lukaku, fired straight at the Algeria goalkeeper.
But Belgium did eventually pull level when Fellaini, fresh from entering the action just minutes earlier, headed home Kevin De Bruyne’s cross to spark relief.
Suddenly, the Red Devils appeared a different proposition and there was a sense of inevitability when Mertens ran clear to fire home the winner with 10 minutes remaining.
Fellaini almost added a third when his header was brilliantly tipped over the crossbar by Raïs M’Bohli.
Belgium’s next game is against Russia on June 22 while Algeria takes on South Korea later that day.