Belgium secured their qualification to the last 16 with a largely uninspiring 1-0 victory against Russia in the midday heat in Rio. There was an early scare for Belgium when Thomas Vermaelen appeared to injure himself in the warm-up, but fortunately for them the Arsenal defender was deemed fit to play in a defence including Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, who was also an injury doubt in the days leading up to the game. Fellaini, who made such an impact from the bench in the 2-1 win over Algeria, also started this time out. Russia coach Fabio Capello kept faith with his keeper Igor Akinfeev, despite his blunder in the opening game against Korea Republic.
Belgium dominated possession in the opening stages, without really creating any clear cut chances. Mertens had a low shot blocked by the defence, while the return cross just evaded the head of Lukaku. De Bruyne then saw his delivery easily cleared by Berezutsky as the Belgians continued to probe. At the other end Russia almost broke the deadlock with their first real opportunity, as Fayzulin found himself in space on the edge of the area, but his low strike was parried away by Thibaut Courtois. Belgium then almost forged a great chance of their own, after a powerful run from De Bruyne. The ball was slipped through to Mertens in space, but as he tried to cut the ball across for Lukaku, Ignashevic was on hand to clear.
Mertens then fired a shot wide from just outside the box, after breaking free from Kombarov, although Akinfeev appeared to have it covered, the Napoli man getting plenty of joy down the wing. He was involved again minutes later, winning a corner off Kombarov. Russia seemed happy to absorb the Belgian attacks, and hit the Red Devils on the counter attack. That’s precisely what happened when Courtois was again called into action to parry a long shot, this time denying Kokorin as Russia had only their second real chance of the game. Moments later, Vermaelen, who was a doubt pre game, could no longer continue, and his disappointment was clear to see as he left the pitch to be replaced by Tottenham defender Jan vertonghen.
Akinfeev was then forced into yet another save, no surprise when once again it was De Bruyne picking out Mertens, and the winger causing the threat. Russia then wasted the best chance of the first half when Glushakov whipped in a fantastic cross and Kokorin was allowed to rise in the area completely unchallenged, but his header was wide of the target as the first half ended all square.
The second half started at a far lower tempo than the first, the heat in Rio seeming to take its toll on both sides. Both sides enjoyed spells of possession without creating any real chances. Just short of the hour, Belgium brought of Lukaku and sent on Divock Origi as they looked to inject some fresh impetus into the game, and minutes later the youngster went down in the area as he tried to lose his marker, but the ref wasn’t interested. The game was crying out for a goal, but neither team looked like getting one as the game entered the last 20 minutes, the lack of goalmouth action and the largely neutral crowd making for a very flat atmosphere inside the Maracanã.
Russia had a half chance when Samedov fired a free kick in to Ignashevic, inside the 6 yard box, but Daniel Van Buyten did just enough to put him off as he could only flick his effort over the bar. Minutes later Belgium made their final change, sending on Everton star Kevin Mirallas for Dries Mertens, who was at the heart of everything for Belgium in the first half, but completely missing in the second. The first real opening of the second half fell to Russia inside the last 10 minutes, as the game finally livened up, the ball being sent out wide to Yeschenko, and his low effort flashed just wide of Courtois’ upright.
Belgium then went closer still, when they were awarded a free kick just outside the box. Substitute Mirallas somehow beat the defensive wall, leaving Akinfeev well beaten with his low effort, but the ball cannoned back off the post before being cleared. The goal finally looked a possibility, and sure enough with just 3 minutes left the fans finally had something to cheer, youngster Divock Origi perfectly place to fire home after a cutback from Hazard, who had suddenly started to play, giving Akinfeev no chance. It was almost two when minutes later Hazard was again the architect, this time setting up Kevin Mirallas, but his side foot attempt failed to test Akinfeev. It proved a lively finish to what had been a largely drab game, but a result which means Belgium have now ensured qualification with maximum points from their opening two games.
Algeria registered their first win in the World Cup finals in 32 years as they beat Korea Republic 4-2 in a fantastic match in Porto Alegre. South Korea named the same side who helped them to a point against Russia in their opening game, while Algeria rang in the changes, with strikers Abdelmoumene Djabou and Islam Slimani among the five players coming in. Sofiane Feghouli, who was on target from the spot in Algeria’s opening game, had a chance in the opening minutes but as he span to shoot his effort flew high and wide of the goal. Slimani and Brahimi then had chances as Algeria started the brighter. They should really have taken the lead when Slimani was left free at the back stick following a corner, but he could only head into the side netting with the goal at his mercy.
Abdelmoumene Djabou then hit one from range after being set up by Slimani, but he pulled his shot wide of the goal. Slimani himself was then guilty of another miss, firing wide to the right when he was free in the middle picked out in the middle by Aissa Mandi. He should really have done better with the chance, and minutes later he was involved again, this time firing over, before then being caught offside as everything went through him. It was no surprise when he eventually did give his side the lead, Medjani playing a probing 40 yard pass, and Slimani completely dissecting the Korean defence before producing a smart finish beyond Jung Sung-Ryong. Just a minute later and it was 2-0 to the Desert Rats. After yet another corner, a fantastic delivery by Abdelmoumene Djabou picked out Rafik Halliche in the middle, and the former Fulham defender made no mistake with his head from close range.
38 minutes into the game and things got even worse for the Korean Republic as Algeria scored a third. Slimani turned provider this time, setting up Djabou, and the Club Africain man fired home with his left foot into the bottom right corner, to give Algeria a 3-0 lead at the break. Korea took just 4 minutes after the restart to pull one back. It was another display of poor defending, this time from Algeria, and when Ki Sung-Yueng slippe it through to Son Heung-min, his drilled shot went straight through the legs of M’Bolhi to give the Asian side some hope.
Korea then had a chance cleared off the line, before M’Bolhi was forced into an acrobatic save, as they continued to push for a second. Ki Sung-Yueng struck from distance, and the ball looked destined for the top corner before M’Bolhi produced a world class stop. Minutes late Algeria, who had been a little under the kosh since Korea pulled one back, relieved some of the pressure as they extended their lead through Brahimi. Feghouli picked him out in the middle, and he produced a fine finish to restore the 3 goal advantage.
Korea refused to believe they were out of the game, and in the 72nd minute they closed the gap yet again when Lee Jeun-ho squared the ball for Koo Ja-cheol to slot into an open goal from just a few yards out. Kim Shin-wook then headed over after he got on the end of a Son Heung-Min cross. Nabil Ghilas was then guilty of wasting a chance for Algeria with his head, Djamel Mesbah with the ball in. Son Heung-Min then saw his effort blocked, before Ji Dong-Won fired wide, as Korea applied more pressure in the closing stages, looking to restore some pride. Algeria held on to the claim the victory, however, in arguably one of the games of the tournament. Both sides were guilty of suspect defending at times, but it was fantastic to watch nonetheless.
USA and Portugal drew 2-2 in the final game of the day as the World Cup continued to produce goals. Graham Zusi came into the USMNT starting XI to replace injured Sunderland striker Jozy Altidore, while Paulo Bento made four changes to his Portugal side that tasted a heavy defeat in their opening game. Beto came in to replace the injured Rui Patrício in goal, while Ricardo Costa, André Almeida and Helder Postiga also came into the side. Fábio Coentrão and Hugo Almeida were both missing through injury, while Real Madrid defender Pepe was suspended following the red card his received for his foolish headbutt in the match against Germany.
Portugal took just 4 minutes to take the lead, as they looked to erase the memory of that 4-0 drubbing against Germany, Manchester United winger Nani smashing the ball into the roof of the goal from the edge of the six yard box, after Geoff Cameron had failed to deal with the danger. USA attempted to hit straight back through Fabian Johnson, but he saw his shot blocked after being set up by Jermaine Jones. Clint Dempsey, who opened the scoring for the USA in their last game, then went close, just firing over from a free kick just outside the box. Hélder Postiga lasted just 16 minutes for Portugal before he was replaced by Éder, who also came on in the first game.
Beto was then forced to make a good stop low to his right when Dempsey again looked a threat. Michael Bradley found him with a through ball and the former Fulham & Tottenham man got his shot on target from a tight angle, only to see the Portuguese keeper make the stop. He went close again 2 minutes later, this time firing just over with his right after the ball broke to him from a corner. João Moutinho then snagged a shot wide for Portugal after Meireles played him through.
Dempsey then had another effort blocked, as he continued to be a threat to the Portuguese lead, Zusi setting him up. He then turned provider, this time teeing up Bradley, but again the USA were unable to hit the target. Next to miss the target was Johnson, Dempsey again the provider, as the USA continued to dominate the attacking play since going a goal behind. A rare foray forward for Portugal saw Moutinho head the ball on to Miguel Veloso, but his left footed effort from outside the box was easily blocked. Jones then forced another save from Beto with an effort from distance, before Johnson was then flagged offside as Cameron tried to send him clear.
With the heat still in the 90’s in Manaus, there was a short delay to allow both teams to take on fluid. After the restart, Nani then went close again, as Ronaldo broke forward and played him into space on the right, but his drilled shot was well blocked by Tim Howard. USA failed to clear their lines fully, however, and a foul saw Portugal awarded a free kick in Ronaldo territory, but the World Footballer of the Year failed to keep his effort down. Nani then went close with another low effort that cannoned back off the foot of the post, before Everton stopper Tim Howard pulled off a world class save as Éder tried to turn in the rebound. Ronaldo then headed over from a Miguel Veloso cross as the half drew to a close with Portugal still in front.
The opening 10 minutes of the second half were littered with half chances for either side. First, as the USA failed to clear, and as the ball dropped to Éder in the centre his acrobatic effort flew over the bar when he should really have hit the target. USA then thought they had equalised when Johnson got in behind the defence and played the ball square to Bradley, with the goal at his mercy, but Ricardo Costa produced a wonderful goal line clearance to protect the lead for Portugal. Either side and the USA were back in the game, but take nothing away from the Valencia defender’s clearance.
Ronaldo then marauded forward as Portugal hit the USA on a counter attack, but the Real Madrid striker hit his shot terribly wide. It was to prove costly as a minute later USA pulled themselves level. Portugal failed to clear the threat from a corner, and when the ball fell to Jones outside the box, he sidestepped Nani and curled a fantastic shot beyond Beto from long range. USA took a dramatic lead with 10 minutes to go as Clint Dempsey grabbed his second in 2 games. Bradley saw his shot blocked, but as the rebound fell to Zusi he fired across the box, and there was Dempsey to chest the ball over the line from just yards out. Howard then produced another fantastic save to deny Ronaldo, but the flag was up as 5 Portuguese players were standing in an offside position as the ball was played in by Éder.
Ronaldo then failed to hit the target and trouble Howard with his head as he was picked out by Moutinho, as Portugal tried in vein to get themselves back into the game they had led for almost an hour. However, right at the very death they did just that when Ronaldo produced a cross of the highest order which was met by substitute Silvestre Valera, who fired beyond Howard with a diving header. It was cruel on the USA, who felt they had done enough to win the game, and were just 30 seconds away from qualifying for the knockout stages. Now it all goes down to the final round of games. It proved to be the only game of the day I failed to call right, expecting a Portugal win, but credit to the USA who were fantastic throughout.
Monday sees the first day of final group stage games, meaning both games take place at the same time, with qualification and group finishing places still up for grabs. The first two games of the day sees the conclusion of Group B, as Holland take on Chile and Australia take on Spain. The Netherlands take on Chile in São Paulo with top spot firmly up for grabs. The Dutch currently top the group on goal difference, with both sides having won both their games so far. The Dutch were sensational in their 5-1 demolition of Spain in the opening game, while they were made to work far harder against Australia, eventually turning around a 2-1 deficit to win 3-2 thanks to a goal from Memphis Depay. Manchester United striker Robin Van Persie was also on target that day, taking his tally to 3 so far in the competition, but he will miss this clash after picking up yellow cards in both games. The Dutch still have Arjen Robben, who is also on 3 goals so far, to drive the attack, while Jeremain Lens is likely to come into the starting XI.
Chile know that only a win will be good enough to see them finish top of the group, and after impressive outings against Australia and Chile they are more than capable of getting a win here today. Many expected them to brush aside Australia, but few could have foreseen their impressive display as they took apart reigning European and World Champions Spain, Vargas and Aránguiz doing the damage in the first half in a 2-0 victory. Chile were superb in that game, both in defence and attack, and Australia showed the Dutch are not infallible at the back. Tough one to call, but think both teams to score should be a definite in this one.
Over in Curitiba, Spain will look to put a disastrous tournament behind them with at least some dignity, as they take on Australia. The Spanish came into the tournament as potential champions, but have since capitulated as they lost both games, looking nothing like the side who have won the last three major tournaments in which they competed. In the past you could only have seen one outcome in this one, but Spain, hampered by some dreadful goalkeeping by Iker Casillas, look very beatable.
Australia, despite also registering 2 losses, should be very proud of their performances. The 3-1 defeat in their opening game against Chile doesn’t do their performance justice, Cahill particularly being a constant threat leading the line. He was on target that day, and then scored arguably the goal of the tournament so far with his sensational volley against the Dutch, in a hard-fought battle which eventually saw them lose the game 3-2. The bad news for Australia is that Cahill will be missing from the final game, after picking up 2 bookings, and I can’t help think that may be the final nail in the coffin of their chances to get at least 1 win before heading back home. Despite having let me down twice already in this tournament, I’m once again going for a Spain win in this one. Third time lucky?
Hosts Brazil are then in action later in the day, against Cameroon, with everything still up for grabs in Group A. Brazil are join leaders with Mexico at the moment, both sides unbeaten with 1 win and 1 draw. Victory in this game will guarantee qualification, although the top spot could still be decided by goal difference should Mexico beat Croatia in the other clash. Brazil started the tournament well with a 3-1 win against Croatia, although the Europeans offered more of a threat than the scoreline suggests. Neymar scored two in that game, but neither he nor his colleagues could find the target in the second game as they were held to a 0-0 draw with Mexico. Defensively the Brazilians have been pretty solid, keeping clean sheets in seven of their last 9 games, but they will be worried about their failure to score last time out.
Cameroon have failed to score in either of their games so far, slipping to 1-0 and 4-0 defeats respectively. Although they will want to go out of the tournament on a high, I genuinely can’t see them offering much threat against the strong Brazilian back line. They will also be without defensive midfield lynchpin Alex Song, who was dismissed against Croatia for a stupid elbow. Saying that, they did manage to hit 2 against Germany at the beginning of June in a friendly, but I can’t see them doing anything like that in Brasília. I don’t think Brazil will run riot here, but I am confident they will win the game, and based on the stats I’m going for Brazil to win to nil in this one.
Croatia take on Mexico in Recife with both sides knowing a win will secure qualification to the last 16. The top spot could potentially still be up for grabs, depending on the outcome of the other game, but both are likely to be focused on just making it through to the knockout stages. Croatia were unlucky in their opening game, playing well despite the 3-1 defeat, an own goal by Marcelo giving them the lead. In Manaus in the second match, they proved way too strong for Cameroon, winning 4-0 on the day. Bayern striker Mario Mandžukić, making his first start in the tournament, scored twice that day, with Olić and Perišić also finding the target.
Mexico opened their tournament with a slender 1-0 win against Cameroon, although they also had 2 goals disallowed that day, replays showing both should have stood. Oribe Peralta, top scorer in qualification, found the net that day. The second game against Brazil lacked goals but the Mexicans gave a good account of themselves, having several chances to break the deadlock themselves, while also showing great defensive determination in keeping the likes of Neymar at bay. They will be hoping for another solid defensive performance in this one as they look to progress. Mexico come into this having lost just twice in 11 games, both coming in World Cup warm-up friendly defeats, Bosnia and Portugal beating them by a solitary goal. All the form books suggest this game will be another tight affair, and therefore I’m going to hedge my bets on unders in this one.
Both teams to score – Netherlands against Chile
Spain to beat Australia
Brazil to win to nil against Cameroon
Under 2.5 goals in Croatia against Mexico
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