Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini scored twice as Belgium produced a scintillating attacking display to win 4-3 away to France on Sunday.
With the European Championship one year away, Belgium – second in FIFA’s rankings – will certainly be one of the team’s to watch.
Even more so after this accomplished performance against World Cup quarterfinalist France, which scored two late consolation goals to soften a humiliating defeat.
Fellaini pounced with a close-range finish and a powerful header to put Belgium 2-0 up at halftime and take his international tally to five in the past three games, before Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan made it 3-0 shortly after the break.
“We were very dominant,” said Belgium coach Marc Wilmots, who scored when Belgium won 2-1 at Stade de France before the 2002 World Cup. “We had seven or eight clear-cut chances.”
France winger Mathieu Valbuena scored a penalty in the 53rd minute, before Chelsea winger Eden Hazard made it 4-1, also from the spot.
“It was a great evening, a great match,” said Hazard, the Premier League’s player of the year. “It is a great feeling.”
Substitutes Nabil Fekir and Dimitri Payet pulled late goals back for France.
Although France was missing Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema and Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba – who played on Saturday night when Juventus lost 3-1 to Barcelona in the Champions League final – this was still a near full-strength France side.
“Belgium really took their chances and we didn’t defend well, especially with our tackling,” France coach Didier Deschamps said. “Belgium might not be a big name like Brazil or Argentina but they’re not second in the world rankings for nothing.”
Worryingly for Deschamps, his defense – solid at last year’s World Cup – is now leaking goals with seven conceded in the past two games at Stade de France following Brazil’s 3-1 win in March.
The first Belgium goal, in the 17th minute, came somewhat against the run of play, as Fellaini looked well offside when he collected a deflected pass from midfield partner Axel Witsel and thumped the ball past goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
His next goal, a bullet header in the 43rd following a cross from Toby Alderweireld, was emphatic.
Lloris made a smart save to beat away Christian Benteke’s close-range header as Belgium almost got another, and Wilmots was angry that France midfielder Yohan Cabaye did not get a red card for seemingly hacking down Hazard, although he got the ball first.
After Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois made a good save from Olivier Giroud at the start of the second half, Belgium moved further ahead in the 50th. Following a rapid break, Fellaini fed Nainggolan 25 meters out and he placed a powerful shot from the right side of the penalty area inside Lloris’ right post.
France got a lifeline when Giroud won a fortunate penalty – he was leaning back and pulling the defender’s shirt – and Valbuena comfortably beat Courtois.
But one minute later, France center half Laurent Koscielny fouled Witsel, and Hazard took a two-step run-up before coolly sending Lloris the wrong way.
Substitute striker Romelu Lukaku hit the crossbar midway through the second half, with Lloris well beaten.
Fekir took his goal well in the 89th, as did Payet in injury time, as both netted their first international goals.
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