Belgium 1 – 0 Russia
A disappointing affair between two teams that should be showcasing far more talent than this.
The defensive attitude of the 2018 hosts is a surprise, but I suppose is typical of their manager. Content to play for a point for large parts, Russia sat back and let the Belgians come at them.
The only problem was that the Belgians weren’t getting anywhere. This was not the defensive master class of Iran, but more of a simple “get men in the way” combined with Belgian inaccuracy of crosses, many of them sailing wide or over everybody’s head. Hazard was marked out of the game and Fellaini was played too deep, his passing ability far from his strongest skill.
Mertens, Alderweireld, Hazard, they were all trying to create something but with little success. Fayzulin looked mildly dangerous whenever he got a sniff of the ball in the opposite end of the field, shooting over near the end of the half before Kokorin headed wide from space. They were rare moments of Russian initiative, the absence of which depressingly complimented the Belgian inability to make chances at the other end.
The poor quality of the game continued in the second, albeit with Russia finally deciding to get involved to a greater degree. But that essentially just involved copying Belgium’s fortunes in the first, with aimless build-up play and useless crosses, and they went wide more than they were cleared. Neither keeper was being tested too much, and no subs seemed to have the star power to alter the framework of the game.
By the time we got to 80 minutes it seemed as if Belgium were out on their feet, bizarrely exhausted from another mostly inept display. But then suddenly they kicked into gear, forging ahead down the left primarily, with Hazard finally finding the pace he has utilised at Chelsea all season. He, Fellaini and Mirallas were deeply involved, with the latter getting as close as anyone had with a post-bound free kick.
And then finally the deadlock was broken. It was all Hazard of course, skipping by a few defenders on the way to laying it off for the young Origi. He had the simple task of slotting it home, and Russia had nothing to offer in response. Belgium saw it out easily and, with another dose of good fortune, have another three points.
Russia are remarkably poor and really don’t deserve to progress on the basis of this game. Belgium are little better, winning six points on the back of some sublime moments.
South Korea 2 – 4 Algeria
With the result earlier both teams had as much reason to get the three points as they could have. And it was Algeria, surprisingly given the way they played against Belgium, who made the more attacking start, pressing hard into the Korean penalty area and making life difficult for the perennial Asian qualifiers.
Both teams took time to come into the game, with Slimani having the best chance of the first 20 minutes, sidefooting wide from close range despite an absence of all defenders around him. Son was clearly the main playmaker of the Koreans, but he cut a frequently isolated figure in the advanced midfield position he prefers.
The opener was a great tonic for the somewhat unimaginative play that preceded it though. Long ball from Medjani and great work by Slimani to edge out two defenders and lift the ball past Jung in the Korean goal.
As we have seen on several occasions this tournament, conceding made Korea lose all composure, and it was mere seconds before Algeria were pressing on. From that a corner and from that was Halliche’s powerful header. Given all the space he needed, especially by Jung, the result was inevitable.
South Korea couldn’t get going in any part of the pitch, with no attacking impetus and some comical ineptness at the back. The third was more of the same: another long ball, a nice touch from Slimani to bamboozle several Korean defenders and a composed finish from Djabou.
Korea stumbled through the rest of the half but came out with a bit more fighting spirit in the second. Son’s goal had more than a bit of luck about it, the ball bouncing off his back before it came to his feet, but he still finished well. That gave the Koreans home and boosted their attacking mindset, making the game far more entertaining.
But Algeria aren’t 20 places higher than South Korea in the FIFA rankings for nothing. They stayed composed at the back and limited Korea to mostly distant chances and incomplete passing moves, striking back with Brahhimi’s goal, largely created by Feghouli.
Korean had little to play for after that, and Koo’s tap in served merely to make sure the game was not a total dead rubber for the remainder of time to be played. Algeria played well in all areas while Korea only started playing in the first half. This group belongs to Belgium, but the remaining three have set up a pretty interesting looking last round of games, where GD will be the true decider.
USA 2 – 2 Portugal
It was an inversion of the first game, with the USA now offering the poor defensive resistance in the opening moments, allowing Nani to crash in the opener from bizarrely close range. The US immediately bounced back and had a go, with Dempsey’s 14th minute free fizzing over the bar, before the same player forced Beto into a tight angled save and then looped the ball over the bar from the resulting corner.
Ronaldo, clearly playing with an injury, was instrumental in any moves the Portuguese were making, but cut an increasingly isolated figure, though the sub Ener provided a welcome burst of pace to his team’s offence. It was the Americans making all the running, with Dempsey a constant threat, but the US struggled to actually make Beto work for a save.
Still, the Portuguese could threaten when they found the space and pace to do so, Ronaldo setting up Nani for a thumping shot with a few minutes left, before the same player slammed the ball off the post from the same position, Howard recovering to make a decent save from Eder’s rebound effort.
Both teams came out in the second half looking to get more involved, Eder putting one over early on before Johnson tested Beto on the byline. It was the States with the first nailed on chance though, Zuzi and Johnson mixing superbly to give Johnson an open shot at goal, only for Costa to clear off the line. Portugal were pegged back all too often, with Ronaldo staying ahead to await the counter. But he was having a poor game by his high standards, blasting wide from a promising position just after the hour mark.
Shortly afterwards the teams were level, Jones curling in a belter past a motionless Beto. It was no more than the States deserved. They took their eye off the ball a minute later, when Meireles’ volley was smartly saved. The game became more even, with Portugal having more possession, but failing to really threaten the USA goal, save for Nani’s wayward shot around the 80th minute.
The second US goal came from some dire Portuguese defending, Bradley given far too much space to collect the ball from the byline, before Dempsey cleverly stayed onside to get it into the net.
Portugal pulled themselves together and pressed on, but couldn’t find the opening. The minutes ticked by, the US stood strong and it looked dead and buried. Then Bradley’s error and Ronaldo had the ball in space. And after a terrible game he just whipped in the most perfect cross of the tournament so far and Varela was on hand to smash it home.
The American were gutted and the Portuguese were happy to have held on. A draw between the USA and Germany will see both through, Portugal and Ghana both need big wins. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out.