BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) — Belgium opened its World Cup campaign with a 2-1 comeback win over Algeria on Tuesday, relying on second-half goals from two substitutes after a tense start in Group H.
Algeria opened the scoring with a penalty in the 25th minute and the surprising lead stood for 45 minutes until Marouane Fellaini’s strong glancing header, with his back to goal, from a Kevin De Bruyne cross.
Fellaini, who many had considered would start the match, had only come onto the pitch five minutes earlier and was coach Marc Wilmots’ final substitution.
Dries Mertens’ right-foot strike beat Algeria’s goalkeeper in the 80th after Eden Hazard saw him free on the right and set him up for the decider. Mertens, who went on at the start of the second half, sent his shot high in the net outside of Rais Mbolhi’s reach.
“We knew it would be tough, that there would be no space,” Belgium coach Marc Wilmots said. “We made one error and we paid for it. The bench made the difference. We showed mental strength and we came back.”
Algeria attacking midfielder Sofiane Feghouli converted a penalty in the first half after he was dragged down in the area by Belgium left back Jan Vertonghen.
At that point, Algeria was on course to produce another upset of a major team as it did in 1982 when it beat West Germany in its first group match. But the Algerians were tired by the end, having started the game brightly.
“We just missed a big upset, a victory,” Algeria coach Vahid Halilhodzic said. “We were so close.
“My players have no reason to blush. They may be disappointed, but there is no reason to cry.”
Belgium is widely billed as the favorite in Group H, which also includes Russia and South Korea. But Algeria dominated possession in the opening minutes, surging forward and moving the ball with flair. Belgium eventually settled down and regained control, ending the match with 65 percent possession.
Before Belgium’s comeback, the Algeria defense held firm, setting up a bulwark in the final third of the pitch. When Belgium had the ball, Algeria defenders allowed them little room to maneuver. Algerian defenders at times doubled up on Hazard, shutting down space for him to operate down the left.
Defensive midfielder Axel Witsel had Belgium’s best two opportunities in the first half – powerful 25-yard shots parried by the Algeria goalkeeper in the 21st and 34th minutes – and also snuffed out Algeria threats by protecting the back four and winning numerous aerial duels.
Wilmots brought on Mertens for Nacer Chadli after halftime to give Belgium more of an attacking edge. He also took off lone striker Romelu Lukaku, who was left stranded and had a disappointing match, and replaced him with Divock Origi in the 58th. He made his final substitution in the 65th when he brought on Fellanini for Moussa Dembele to give the team more of a physical presence.