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Football | International

Dries Mertens © Action Images

Mertens strikes late as Belgium win



A 90th-minute strike by midfielder Dries Mertens salvaged a 2-1 win for Belgium over Slovakia on Wednesday in an international friendly that the hosts had dominated until it sprung into life in the closing stages.

Belgium, joint top of their World Cup qualifying group with Croatia, had some two-thirds of the ball in a fully one-sided first half that at times felt like an exhibition match with Eden Hazard's flicks and back-heels.

Hazard's 10th minute penalty, after he had struck the ball against Slovak defender Tomas Hubocan's arm to prompt the spot kick and then sent keeper Dusan Kuciak the wrong way, was the hosts' slim reward for bossing the game.

Belgium's main frustration was their failure to convert possession into goals, a shortfall shown at times in World Cup qualifiers so far, with last-ditch Slovak defending thwarting them on a number of occasions on Wednesday.

Belgian coach Marc Wilmots, who had expressed his displeasure about playing a friendly during a busy month, lauded his team for their first half display and said they should have been well clear at the break.

Slovakia, coming off the back of a 3-0 friendly loss to the Czech Republic in November, were livelier in the second half and finally made Belgian keeper Jean-Francois Gillet work in the 50th minute when Marek Hamsik forced a save.

Amid a string of replacements, the match looked to be heading Belgium's way until the 87th minute when Richard Lasik seized on a poor clearance to drive in and make it 1-1 – the final score in the nation's two previous meetings.

Wilmots and many in the Bruges crowd had their heads in their hands but Mertens then stepped up. He swept in from the left and found the corner with a right-foot winner in the final minute of normal time.

For the much-fancied Belgians it marked a return to winning ways after they let slip an early lead to lose 2-1 in a friendly in Romania in November.

Belgium face back-to-back matches against Macedonia on March 22 and 26, when they will hope captain Vincent Kompany is fit again and back at the heart of their defence.

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