Belgium midfielder Kevin De Bruyne knew he didn’t play well in his team’s opening World Cup game. He said as much when he accepted the man of the match award.
“I don’t know why I got the trophy,” De Bruyne said. “Maybe it’s because of my name.”
With De Bruyne looking to improve after the unimpressive 1-0 win over Canada, Belgium has a second chance against Morocco on Sunday to show why it is the No. 2-ranked team in the world behind Brazil .
This could also be the last World Cup chance for many on the highly-rated Belgian squad, as the “golden generation” has often been reminded in the runup to Qatar. The spine of the team — De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois — are all in their 30s.
Hazard acknowledged that Belgium’s chances were better at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. But he’s not writing off this tournament.
“The team was better four years ago. Still we have the quality to win games, to win competitions,” he said. “We have a few guys — they are a bit older now, but we have experience. We have the best goalkeeper in the world. We have one of the best midfields in the world. We have the strikers. We are a complete team.”
Hazard said first games are tough, and the Canada opener was typical.
“There’s always a lot of stress around it and you don’t want to lose the ball so you tend to hide a little bit,” he said. “I’m not worried. We need to work together. We need to start getting to know each other again.”
Coach Roberto Martinez, who said the performance against Canada was one of Belgium’s worst since he’s been in charge, might be tempted to bring in fresh faces against Morocco.
“Our first half against Canada, we didn’t play at our top level,” Martinez said. “But we reacted very well during the second half.”
Martinez would dearly love to bring back powerful striker Romelu Lukaku, who missed the Canada opener with a left thigh injury and is doubtful for the entire group stage. Some Belgian media has been reporting that Belgium’s record goal-scorer could make an earlier-than-expected return against the Moroccans at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha.
Morocco will be less fazed at the prospect of trying to contain De Bruyne having already succeeded at subduing another of the world’s best midfielders in Luka Modric.
A 0-0 draw with 2018 World Cup finalist Croatia in their first Group F game was a promising start to the World Cup for Morocco and especially for coach Walid Regragui, who had less than three months to prepare his team having only been hired at the end of August.
He had coached Morocco in just three friendly games before entering the World Cup. Compare that to Zlatko Dalic’s five years in charge of Croatia. Or Martinez’s six years with Belgium.
The World Cup schedule gave Morocco a daunting start with 2018 runners-up Modric and Croatia followed by De Bruyne and Belgium, who finished third in that last World Cup. But the point against Croatia provided a real confidence-booster.
“Arriving in these conditions is not easy, but I accepted the challenge,” Regragui said. And the Croatia result “made us believe,” he added.