Belgium's strength came from its standout bench

RAF CASERT (AP Sports Writer)
The Associated Press
Belgium's strength came from its standout bench
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Belgium's Dries Mertens celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the group H World Cup soccer match between Belgium and Algeria at the Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Tuesday, June 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) -- All too often, it sounds phony when World Cup coaches say all 23 players in the squad are equally important. On Tuesday, Belgium coach Marc Wilmots made it ring true.

From the start against Algeria, Wilmots said the plan was to wear out the opposition with possession play and then bring in fresh substitutes to pounce. Instead of just an 11-man starting lineup, he was counting on the bench from the opening whistle.

One substitute, Marouane Fellaini, used bulk and power to head home an equalizer to cancel out an early penalty and another, Dries Mertens, finished off a counter in the 80th minute to confirm Belgium as favorite in Group H with a 2-1 win.

''I always said that the bench will make the difference and we showed it again today,'' said Fellaini, who turned from a benchwarmer by necessity at Manchester United to a substitute by design for Belgium.

His 70th-minute glancing, backward header finally brought the favored Belgians back into the game after a plodding first half.

At halftime Wilmots had already brought on Mertens for more depth on the right wing. Even after he provided the winner, he also showed the bench is not necessarily a happy place to be.

''It was the choice of the trainer. A tough choice. But I was happy to come on,'' Mertens said. He was able to use his speed ever more effectively against the rapidly tiring Algerians and he finished off a quick counterattack with a fiery right-foot drive for the clincher.

If he had started, he might not have had such an impact.

Wilmots is in a good position, however, as few coaches have those kinds of options. While most teams struggle to fill their starting lineup with top class players, he can leave many on the bench.

''If we didn't have the strength from our bench, it would have been different,'' he said.

So for 45 minutes, he set off with possession play, hoping to exhaust the Algeria players with running. What he hadn't counted on was an error in his own defense.

Jan Vertonghen dragged Sofiane Feghouli down in the area, conceding a penalty which the Algerian forward converted in the 25th minute.

From there, Algeria's plan was clear: park the bus in front of goal and hope to hang on for a famous victory. The Algerian fans became ever more rapturous and the Belgian players were sullen and downhearted heading into halftime.

''I knew the moment would come. We had to stay calm,'' said Wilmots.

After Mertens, Wilmots introduced Fellaini, a 1.94 meter box-to-box player who can have an impact on any defense, let alone a tiring one.

Again it worked out to perfection. ''Marouane was a perfect sub, with his power and his talents,'' said Wilmots.

It turned into a steamroller the Algerians could no longer keep off. So on an afternoon when Belgium's biggest star, playmaker Eden Hazard, failed to thrill, there were others to take his place.

''They brought in fresher men and it paid off,'' Algeria coach Vahid Halilhodzic said. From the start, he had it in the back of his mind how dangerous Mertens and Fellaini could be.

''It is one of the strongest teams in Europe now. And they showed it,'' he said.

Wilmots continues to count on using as many men as he can.

''I have full trust in the 23 I took. I know every one of them,'' he said.

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