Manchester United misfit Marouane Fellaini came off the bench to inspire a dramatic Belgian fightback against Algeria on Tuesday as Marc Wilmots’ young side opened their World Cup campaign with a 2-1 win.
Fellaini, who endured a wretched season at United after his move from Everton, caused havoc among the Algerian defence when he came on as a second-half substitute, dragging his side back into the game with a towering header with 20 minutes to go.
Fellow substitute Dries Mertens fired home 10 minutes later after a pass from Chelsea playmaker Eden Hazard to secure the three points for Belgium, tipped as dark horses to go all the way in Brazil.
After regularly netting in the English Premier League at Everton, the 26-year-old Fellaini failed to score once during his debut season at Old Trafford.
Yet all that was forgotten in the Brazilian sunlight at Belo Horizonte’s Mineirao stadium when Fellaini deftly flicked a Kevin De Bruyne cross into the top of the net and cancel out playmaker Sofiane Feghouli’s 25th-minute penalty, Algeria’s first World Cup goal in 28 years.
WATCH: Marouane Fellaini equalises for Belgium
Surging forward and using his height and strength to make a nuisance of himself in the box as the North Africans wilted in the final quarter of the group H match, Fellaini played a huge part in the turnaround.
“We suffered a bit in the first half. We had our problems against a good Algerian team but at the end we won, which is all that matters,” Fellaini said.
Familiar around the world due to his outsized Afro hairstyle, Fellaini dedicated the goal to travelling relatives.
“It was important because we were a goal down. This is for my family who came all the way to see me here,” he said.
WATCH: Dries Mertens scores the winner
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots said his intention was always to bring on Fellaini in the second half after using other players to first grind down Algeria.
“Yes, I could have used him from the start, but it was important to have a technical team to keep ball possession,” he said. “I knew the moment would come, we had to stay calm.
“[In the] changing room I wrote down on the board: ‘the bench will make the difference.’ And the bench made the difference,” said a delighted Wilmots.
“At half-time the players were a bit down, but I said ‘don’t worry, we will score and we will change totally the match’. We were able to do that and I think we deserved that victory. My substitutes are very strong. We got a new momentum. We saw that the Algeria team were getting more and more tired.”
The Africans, ranked 22nd in the world, looked set to hold on against a Belgian side that looked short of ideas despite its array of youthful attacking talent.
But two substitutions from Wilmots in the second period – bringing on Fellaini for Moussa Dembele minutes after Divock Origi replaced the unimpressive Romelu Lukaku – changed the game.
Wilmots reminded expectant fans that patience is a virtue after being inundated with text messages from home demanding more urgency.
“They had one opportunity and it was a penalty. So our organisation was perfect,” Wilmots said, smarting at suggestions that Belgium began badly.
“I think half of Belgium sent me text messages, saying ‘shout, tell them to move’. If you have good organisation, there will be opportunities, you have to be patient.
“Did you expect us to win 4-0, 5-0? Well Algeria’s 22 in the world ranking, you know ... Do you realise where we are now? It’s a World Cup. There are no weak teams. In order to win, you have to reach the limits of pain, not regret anything.”
With Russia and South Korea to come, Wilmots, who played in Belgium’s last World Cup campaign in 2002, said he was taking nothing for granted. “We have three points, now we will rehydrate, go home and relax. With three points we are nowhere.
Man-of-the-match De Bruyne, who supplied the cross for Fellaini’s goal and started the move for the second, said Algeria were a tough nut to crack.
“The first half was very difficult. They played well, very organised, I knew they would put up a block,” he said. “In the second, I had more space. I could be dangerous with my crosses.”Algeria coach Vahid Halilhodzic admitted Fellaini’s influence had been key.
“Fellaini is one of the best headers of a ball in Europe, he brings a lot to the game in terms of his physical impact,” said Halilhodzic.
“He was so dominant in the air that my players didn’t have an answer to it. He’s an extraordinary player who changed the game.”
Agence France-Presse, Reuters