Divock Origi seals it late on as Belgium’s bench strikes again
Russia left to rue missed chances in Group H clash
If there was one man you could guarantee would stand aloof from the general joie de vivre of this World Cup, it was Fabio Capello. He is living this World Cup as he lived the last, grimly battering away criticism as drab tournament performances fail to live up to the promise of qualifying.
The Sovetsky Sport columnist Yury Tsyban had described Capello’s football as being whiskey after the champagne of Guus Hiddink at the Euros in 2008.
Not that Belgium were much better. They had offered almost nothing in the second half before suddenly being stimulated by a Kevin Mirallas free-kick that hit the post with seven minutes remaining.
Eden Hazard, uninvolved until then, woke up and, after having a shot deflected wide for a corner, set up the winner with a darting run to the byline, before cutting the ball back for 19-year-old substitute Divock Origi to take his time and smash a shot past Igor Akinfeev. Belgium have own both games and are through to the last 16, but it was another scratchy display from a side widely tipped as potential winners.
Capello spent the majority of the game standing in the corner of his technical area, arms folded, sleeves of his blue shirt thrust up to the elbows, leaning slightly backwards in that disdainful way he has, glowering at the dour midfield tussle in front of him as the two 4-2-3-1s cancelled each other out. Given how poor Russia had been in their opening game, that was perhaps all Capello ever intended: a desperate scrap between six players in the middle of the pitch with everybody else involved only peripherally.
The Italian had resisted calls to introduce the more flamboyant Alan Dzagoev or even Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who had come off the bench to score against South Korea. He did, though, bring in the 22-year-old Rubin Kazan forward Maksim Kanunnikov, for just his third cap as Russia looked to exploit the occasional clumsiness of Toby Alderweireld at right back.
Every Russian attack in the first half – not that there were many – seemed to go down that flank, but too often their passing was too sedate and, aside from a couple of long-range Viktor Fayzulin efforts that Thibaut Courtois pushed to safety, their threat was limited.
In part that was down to Marouane Fellaini. Looking rejuvenated after a miserable domestic season, he patrolled the back of midfield alongside Axel Witsel, stifling Oleg Shatov and distributing with the sort of wit he has never managed in a Manchester United shift. At one point in the first half, he rolled the ball back with the underside of his foot – think Ferenc Puskas against Billy Wright in 1953 – and swept a perfect 40-yard pass forward for Dries Mertens. But that was a rare moment of fizz on a generally flat afternoon.
Mertens was at the heart of most of what attacking threat Belgium presented, at least in the first half, cutting in from the right and testing Akinfeev with a handful of cross-shots. With Russia favouring their left, in fact, most of the first half was played in one half of the pitch, as though both teams had decided to make the most of the sunshine and avoid the shade on the other flank.
It was from the sunshine that the only really clear chance of the first half arrived two minutes before the break, Denis Glushakov crossing from the left for Aleksandr Kokorin who, having got between Vincent Kompany and Daniel van Buyten, headed wide. It also brought Russia’s best effort of the second, Andrei Eshchenko steaming forward to drag a shot just wide when it looked like he might produce a passable replica of Carlos Alberto’s goal in the 1970 final.
It was another disappointing day for Romelu Lukaku, who struggled to impose himself. When he was withdrawn early in the second half, he had played 113 minutes in this World Cup, and touched the ball in the opposition box only once. Mertens’s effectiveness declined as the game wore on and the only surprise when he went off was that it was Mirallas rather than Adnan Januzaj who replaced him.
Still, Belgium did enough, and could easily have added to their lead as Russia chased the game in the closing minutes. Russia, meanwhile, can only try to beat Algeria in their final match and hope that is enough to make it through. For Capello, this World Cup might turn out to be even worse than that of four years ago.
BELGIUM: 1 Thibaut Courtois; 2 Toby Alderweireld, 15 Daniel Van Buyten, 4 Vincent Kompany, 3 Thomas Vermaelen (5 Jan Vertonghen, 31 mins); 6 Axel Witsel, 8 Marouane Fellaini; 14 Dries Mertens (11 Kevin Mirallas, 75 mins), 7 Kevin De Bruyne, 10 Eden Hazard; 9 Romelu Lukaku (17 Divock Origi, 57 mins). Yellow cards: Alderweireld, Witsel.
RUSSIA: 1 Igor Akinfeev; 2 Alexey Kozlov (22 Andrey Eschenko, 62 mins), 14 Vasiliy Berezutskiy, 8 Denis Glushakov (yc), 4 Sergey Ignashevich, 23 Dmitry Kombarov; 20 Viktor Faizulin; 19 Alexander Samedov (11 Alexander Kerzhakov, 90 mins), 6 Maxim Kanunnikov, 17 Oleg Shatov (10 Alan Dzagoev, 83 mins); 9 Alexander Kokorin. Yellow card: Glushakov.