Football: Albert's strike inspires Belgians

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The Independent Online
Belgium. .1

Albert 65

Holland. .0

Attendance: 61,219

BELGIUM made a mark on the 1994 World Cup with victory in this exhilaratingly intense battle. And battle is the word. From the opening minutes, this game swung incredibly from end to end. More chances were created than in any other World Cup contest: more were missed.

It was a game that had everything. Heroic defence, lovely, swiftly flowing attacking play and a remarkable 38 shots on goal. There was courage and also tackling with a sharp edge.

But above all Belgium had to thank Michel Preud'homme, their goalkeeper, who made a succession of exceptional saves. 'Michel is just in unbeatable form,' said the Belgian coach Paul Van Himst.

On several occasions he frustrated the Dutch. 'We created the chances but couldn't get the ball in,' said the Dutch coach Dick Advocaat. 'The players are just devastated.'

Holland began the game moving smoothly forward. Frank Rijkaard dominated the early midfield exchanges in his personal contest with Enzo Scifo. The Dutch knocked the ball out wide to Brian Roy and Gaston Taument but the wingers both flattered to deceive.

Still the Belgians were nervous. Free-kicks were conceded around the box. Ronald Koeman tested Preud'homme with a curling shot in the ninth minute and then Koeman curled another tester round the wall to draw another save.

Scifo is the man expected to make Belgium play. Their swift counter-attacking game depends on him. For the first 20 minutes he was missing. It was rough and nasty when Holland's Jan Wouters was booked for an uncompromising charge at Michel De Wolf, his terrier- like Belgian clone.

But the game settled down and Scifo began to make an impact. He is a very talented player, an outstanding passer of the ball capable also of going past opponents. Here the fruit of his work was most apparent as Josip Weber and Marc Degryse came to life up front. Weber, who worked with menacing intent up front throughout, might have scored after 28 minutes, a minute later Philippe Albert came close to connecting with a diving header.

Towards the end of the first half, this match had a shape that held to the end. The Belgians, set up to counter-attack, swiftly grew in confidence. After 36 minutes, his side on top, Scifo scored only to be ruled offside. Another Koeman error, this time an insipid tackle, had allowed the Belgians in.

The Dutch seemed resigned to the fact that their wingers were firing blanks. Koeman, so influential in his team's attacking play, had more than enough to do looking after Degryse and Weber.

Surprisingly ,the first real blow of the second half was struck by Holland. Avoiding desperate challenges, Dennis Bergkamp worked his way into the box, striking a fierce volley towards the top corner but Preud'homme produced an equally stunning save. Three minutes later, Bergkamp set up Witschge but another chance was squandered.

Belgium toiled confidently despite the odd defensive lapse which was inevitable in this lusty contest. After 64 minutes, Albert settled the issue with a crisply struck half-volley after a corner had been deflected by Georges Grun in his direction. A minute later, Weber should have finished the contest but missed.

Scifo was buoyant now, leading a Belgian team that looks much more formidable than was forecast. Around this pivotal figure the Belgians have a group of players who between them represent a potent blend of tenacity and outstanding technique. The veteran Frankie Van Der Elst lends experience to the vitality of Albert, Weber's cunning pace and the arresting aggression of De Wolf.

The Dutch withered yesterday. Their defensive frailty, most obvious in the form of Ronald Koeman makes them easy targets in the international game. By the end of this match Frank Rijkaard looked disenchanted and Bergkamp up front was a solitary figure. The first message this tournament is sending to the world may be that we have reached the end of a glorious Dutch era.

BELGIUM (1-4-3-2): Preud'homme (Benfica); De Wolf; Emmers, Albert (all Anderlecht), Grun (Parma), Borkelmans; Staelens, Van der Elst (all Club Bruges), Scifo (Monaco); Degryse, Weber (both Anderlecht). Substitutes: Smidts (Antwerp) for Borkelmans, 58min. Medved (Club Bruges) for Emmers, 69.

HOLLAND (1-3-4-2): De Goey (Feyenoord); Koeman (Barcelona); Valckx (Sporting Lisbon), Rijkaard, F de Boer (both Ajax); Taument (Feyenoord), Jonk (Internazionale), Wouters (PSV Eindhoven), Roy (Foggia); R de Boer (Ajax), Bergkamp (Internazionale). Substitutes: Witschge (Feyenoord) for R de Boer, h-t; Overmars (Ajax) for Taument, 63.

Referee: R Marsiglia (Brazil).

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