Belgium coach Roberto Martinez seems puzzled as to why his side have been so poor in its opening two matches of the World Cup, but put Sunday’s surprise 2-0 loss to Morocco down to a fear of losing and not enough quality in their attack.
Belgium stumbled past Canada 1-0 in their Group F opener and were below par again as they slipped to defeat against a spirited Moroccan side roared on by the majority of the 43,000 fans in the Al Thumama Stadium, a result that has put their qualification for the next stage in doubt.
Talisman Kevin De Bruyne had a poor game again and captain Eden Hazard was largely ineffective. Both are players the team usually relies on heavily but Martinez refused to blame individuals.
“We haven’t been the best Belgium at this World Cup yet,” he admitted. “Today I thought we played with the fear of losing. Without the ball we still work for each other but when we have the ball, we don’t stand out, we are not ourselves. We have to work on that.
“We have to stay together now and become stronger. I know this group, we will be ready for Croatia (on Thursday).”
The first goal scored by Romain Saiss slipped in at goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois’s near post, a collective error in defending a set-piece, but Martinez said that did not point to a lack of organisation.
“We didn’t take advantage of our good moments in the first half and that first goal from Morocco determined the rest of the game,” he said.
“We have been defending those standard situations in the same way for six years (since he has been in charge). If the ball is kicked well, those are very difficult balls for a keeper.
“After the goal, the game changed radically and we were not careful enough with the ball to hurt Morocco.”
Experienced defender Jan Vertonghen felt the side lacked attacking cohesion, though he also hit out at suggestions in the media that too many of the ‘Golden Generation’ were past their prime.
“There’s so much going through my mind right now, things I shouldn’t say. I don’t think we created any chances. Where did it go wrong? We probably also attack badly because we are too old, that must be it now, surely?” he said sarcastically.
“We have a lot of quality up front but so does Morocco and they came out better today. This is very frustrating.”
Morocco coach hails fighting spirit and passionate crowd
Morocco coach Walid Regragui repeatedly hailed his players’ fighting spirit and the passionate support of the crowd but warned his side had “achieved nothing” even after their shock 2-0 World Cup win over Belgium on Sunday.
Morocco upset the highly ranked Belgians, after holding Croatia to a draw in their first game, to advance to four points and put themselves in the driving seat in Group F with a game against Canada to come.
“Today we have achieved nothing. I know everyone is delighted but I know football and you need to respect the game. I want everybody to be happy now but we need to recover quickly and get back to work. Canada will be a hard team to play and we have to respect them,” the victorious coach told a news conference after the unexpected victory at the Al Thumama Stadium.
“We have to keep fighting, we want to get past this round and go to the next level.”
Regragui was effusive in praising his own squad and what he called their “fight”.
“We played against one of the best teams in the world with big players, but we know that if you don’t give 100%, it is impossible to win. With these players and these fans, anything is possible.”
Morocco were urged forward by the encouragement of the vast majority of the 43,738-strong crowd, who gave them added wings as they looks to be tiring.
Regragui said Morocco had looked to be cautious initially: “We were humble enough in the first half to defend and know they will have most of the possession. We put in a lot of effort and came out in the second half to play a bit more.
“I said to the players we were going to have to put in maximum effort to get the ball off them. We wanted to stop them finding (Kevin) De Bruyne and (Eden) Hazard. Sometimes you have to be patient and wait for your chance to come.”
Skipper Romain Saiss got a feint touch to Abdelhamid Sabiri’s shot from an impossibly tight angle, just five minutes after coming on, to hand Morocco the lead in the 73rd minute followed by Zakaria Aboukhlal’s stoppage time second goal.
Sabiri’s free kick from near the corner flag caught out Belgium’s highly rated goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois at the near post as it curled in.
“Courtois tends to keep a space at his near post because he is a very tall goalkeeper, and he did that again and was caught out,” Regrgaui said.