Few sides have received quite so much pre-tournament hype as Belgium. There star has been on the rise for quite some time, a host of young stars forming a ‘golden generation’, and taking the Red Devil’s from rank outsiders, to dark horses, to fifth favourites to win the World Cup heading into Brazil. Their opening fixture then was a highly anticipated affair with little fancied but in form Algeria.
It was the underdogs that struck first though. Sofiane Feghouli was brought down clumsily in the box by Jan Vertonghen, and the Valencia winger stepped up to convert the subsequent penalty. Two substitutions though changed the game, and Marc Wilmots’ men began to dominate possession, carving open a number of chances, and recording 17 shots. The breakthrough eventually came through Marouane Fellaini. Almost immediately after coming off the bench, the much maligned Manchester United man headed home emphatically from an excellent Kevin De Bruyne cross to give Louis van Gaal much food for thought. Dries Mertens completed the win with a powerful drive late on, with much credit going to manager Wilmots for having the courage to make the tactical change early on.
After a somewhat timid display in the World Cup opener against Croatia, fans were hoping and expecting a more dominant display by Brazil against Mexico. It was not to be however, and if anything Scolari’s men put in an even less convincing effort. Big Phil showed a lack of ambition in his selection of Ramires in replacing Hulk, and the fact that anchor-man Luiz Gustavo was the Selecao’s stand-out performer speaks volume. Fred was ineffectual up front, and his replacement, former Manchester City reject Jo, didn’t fare much better. Brazil did have chances, but soon to be free agent Guillermo Ochoa was in imperious form, saving anything goal bound and doing an all-round excellent job of putting himself in the shop window. The game ended up as only the World Cup’s second 0-0 so far, with Thiago Silva lucky to be on the pitch.
The day’s late kick-off involved the only two teams yet to play, South Korea and Russia and started off cagey. Neither side had many touches in the opposition’s box, with most of the play taking part in the middle third. South Korea edged the first half, with a close to perfect display by Ki Sung-yueng. Son Heung-min had a few half chances, with Russia’s only real effort coming in the form of a speculative free kick by Ignashevitch.
Russia started the second half with more pace and adventure, opening up the match, with South Korea continuing to counter dangerously. Both teams were limited to mostly long range efforts, neither side’s keeper appearing convincing. It was this situation that yeilded the game’s first goal, Igor Akinfeev letting in what should have been a comfortable save from a tame Lee Keun-hoeffort from distance. The Koreans lead didn’t last long however, the equaliser coming through substitute Kerzhakov, who gobbled up the rebound after several scrappy efforts in the box. A nervous half hour followed, with neither side able to grab a winner.
What’s the significance?
The draw between Brazil and Mexico means that both now only need a point to qualify from Group A, and both will be confident of doing just that against Cameroon and Croatia respectively. Needing points off of Brazil and Croatia, Cameroon look very unlikely to qualify, but Kovac’s men still have a chance if they can beat Cameroon next, to set up a deciding encounter with Mexico.
Belgium lived up to their billing as Group H favourites, but the draw between Russia and South Korea leaves the rest of the group wide open. Algeria will have taken enough from their match with Belgium to have confidence in their ability to take points off of their rivals.
Dries Mertens’ powerful strike to grab the winner against Algeria and cap a fine performance is well worth repeated watches, but the highlight of the day had to be a duo of Guillermo Ochoa saves, one from a strong Silva header, and the other a fine stop from a close range Neymar shot.
Son Heung-min was the best player on the pitch against Russia, creating danger every time he ran at the opposition defence, cutting in from the left with real menace. Another player worthy of mention is Dries Mertens, who turned the Belgium – Algeria match on its head after coming on at half-time. The day’s star performer though was undoubtedly Guillermo Ochoa, who was the stand-out player in a Mexico side which went toe to toe with the favourites Brazil, to recapture the form that had largely deserted them since winning the 2012 Olympics.