Fellaini is the warrior who can help Belgium win the World Cup

Matt Jones 4/07/2018
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Marouane Fellaini, unsurprisingly at 6ft 4in tall, is a problem that just won’t go away.

This could equally be seen as a blessing or a burden dependent on what side of the fence you sit when it comes to one of football’s most divisive figures.

A pest in every sense of the word. On the pitch for teams where his height and gangly, awkward frame causes mismatches in the opponents’ penalty area and nightmares for defenders.

Yet in the stands at Old Trafford, on various social media platforms or in discussions with their buddies, he is the scourge of many a Manchester United fan.

But, is there any better Plan B in football?

His belated introduction from the bench inspired a brilliant Belgian comeback in Rostov-on-Don on Monday night, as the Red Devils dug themselves out of a deep hole.

After dominating the first half but then finding themselves 2-0 down within seven minutes of the restart following brilliant Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui strikes, the bushy-haired bruiser caused a big bother and had a massive impact.

Jan Vertonghen gave Belgium a World Cup lifeline. When Eden Hazard tricked and turned Hiroki Sakai and clipped an inviting cross into the six-yard box, you just knew Fellaini would gleefully accept it.

Belgium beat Japan in epic circumstances.

Belgium beat Japan in epic circumstances.

A Red Devil for both club and country, it was almost unfair how Fellaini found himself competing against Shinji Kagawa for the ball, flooring the former United schemer to level the match. The heavyweights were suddenly off the canvas and searching for a knockout blow.

It duly came in the final seconds through a gloriously-worked team move finished sublimely by Nacer Chadli.

One man who will have watched on with a broad smile at what was unfolding inside Rostov Arena is Jose Mourinho, who has often attracted criticism for his reliance on Fellaini during his two seasons in charge at Old Trafford.

“He’s a very important player for me, much more important than you can imagine,” the United manager had been quoted as saying of the big Belgian last term.

That’s perhaps why he allowed the furore over Fellaini’s contract to rumble on so long – it was in January when talk of an Old Trafford exit was first mooted.

Just this week the 30-year-old inked a two-year extension with the option of an additional year, a full turnaround after he rejected United’s initial offer in September.

And though he may divide opinion among United followers and football fans in general, there can be no doubt that he remains relevant for either set of Red Devils.

He played only 23 games in all competitions for United last season but scored five goals – his second best return in five seasons at the club.

When United often have had nowhere else to turn in the last two seasons, Fellaini was summoned from the substitute’s bench. Often with significant success.

A tremendous headed 91st-minute winner earned a 2-1 victory over Arsenal near the end of the season in April. At the beginning of it in August, replacements Fellaini and Marcus Rashford turned the tide as both bagged goals in a 2-0 home win over Leicester.

Of the 20 goals Fellaini has scored for the club, the stoppage-time clincher against the Gunners was the fourth that came so late in the game.

Unpopular as he may be and as ugly a tactic as it is to use him, the truth is no-one really has an answer for the questions Fellaini poses. And his importance is not lost on his team-mates.

“He’s a strong player and is very important for us, especially at the end of the game when we have a lot of the ball and we attack,” defender Victor Lindelof told the club’s in house channel MUTV last year. “He gives us some more options, he can go into the box and he’s very dangerous in there, so he’s a very important player for us.”

Fellaini has penned a new two-year deal with United.

Fellaini has penned a new two-year deal with United.

Though his appearances were limited in 2017/18, no other player in the previous Premier League campaign won more aerial duels than Fellaini (94) – 14 more than any other midfielder.

He played a key role then in the club’s capture of the League Cup and Europa League as he netted crucial goals in the semi-final stages of both competitions.

The issue for Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez now is, does he use him and a more robust approach in general in the crunch Kazan quarter-final with Brazil on Friday?

Martinez missed a trick against the Japanese when he tried to break them down with guile and craft rather than grit and courage. The nimble but sometimes naive Dries Mertens failed to make an impact, as did Yannick Carrasco who struggled badly.

It was only after the combative Fellaini and Chadli were introduced to the fray that Hazard’s influence on the game was truly exerted.

With this in mind, expect that duo and possibly Moussa Dembele to come into the starting team to tango with the Samba Boys.

He may not be a wizard on the football pitch, but Fellaini proved yet again he possesses an indomitable warrior spirit. And that is an attribute that could well help Belgium win a World Cup.

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England became the last team to qualify for the World Cup quarter-finals after a dramatic penalty shootout as favourites Brazil and fancied France trained their sights on their last-eight opponents.

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Watch the goals in 3D animation form below!

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