Dark horses Belgium eye place in last sixteen

June 22, 2014 - 12:26:15 am

RIO DE JANEIRO: Having come from behind to beat Algeria in their opening game, Belgium can reach the World Cup knockout phase by beating Russia at Rio de Janeiro’s fabled Maracana today.

Marc Wilmots’s ‘golden generation’ looked destined to make a meek entrance into the tournament after falling behind to a Sofiane Feghouli penalty in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday, but late goals from substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens got them off to a winning start.

With Russia having been held 1-1 by South Korea in their Group H opener, the last 16 is already within sight for Belgium, who are seen as dark horses to win the tournament after going through qualifying unbeaten.

Belgium centre-back Nicolas Lombaerts, who plays for Russian side Zenit Saint-Petersburg, knows better than most what to expect from Fabio Capello’s side, and he expects his team-mates to have a physical edge.

“Capello places lots of importance on organisation,” said the 29-year-old, whose side are appearing at a first major tournament since 2002.

“We’ll have to pay attention on the turnovers. Russia are not very physical. Our size should be an advantage.

“They’ve only got two players taller than six foot (1.85 metres). They’ll try to hurt us by keeping the ball on the ground.”

Lombaerts is on standby to play in case Belgium captain Vincent Kompany is unable to shake off a minor groin complaint. The Manchester City defender missed training on Thursday and Friday, but Wilmots is confident that he will be able to take part in Saturday’s eve-of-match session at the Maracana.

“Vincent felt something in the last few minutes against Algeria and couldn’t sprint at 100 percent,” the Belgium coach told a press conference at the team’s base in Mogi das Cruzes, near Sao Paulo, on Friday.

“We decided that he’d spend two days working separately with (physiotherapist) Lieven Maesschalck and the (medical) staff. He should be back on the pitch for training with the squad on Saturday.”

Chelsea playmaker Eden Hazard, creator of Mertens’s winning goal against Algeria, is also expected to be fit despite sustaining a bruised toe during that game.

Should Russia lose, Capello’s side would find themselves on the brink of elimination ahead of their final game against Algeria on Thursday.

Russia needed a 74th-minute goal from Aleksandr Kerzhakov to rescue a point against South Korea after goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev’s blunder had allowed Lee Keun-Ho to break the deadlock.

It was a low-key opening for a team who pipped Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal to an automatic berth in European qualifying, but Spartak Moscow midfielder Denis Glushakov has urged his side to put it behind them.

“We should forget the first game because it’s in the past and we have to focus on the game against Belgium,” he said.

“We have a huge responsibility on our shoulders, so we have to try to do our best to get the three points to get a chance to qualify.

“We know the Belgian players are really good and they have top players playing in the best clubs in Europe.”

Glushakov’s position in the team is under threat from Dynamo Moscow midfielder Igor Denisov, while Kerzhakov’s goal in Cuiaba has strengthened his claim to a starting berth.

Russian media reports, meanwhile, suggest that CSKA Moscow playmaker Alan Dzagoev will replace Zenit’s Oleg Shatov in the number 10 role. AFP

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