By DAN KARELL
For the second consecutive game, Belgium left it until the end of the match to take all three points.
After 87 minutes of barren attacks on the Russian defensive wall, Belgium finally found their breakthrough from the right foot of 19-year-old Divock Origi, who became the nation’s youngest-ever goal scorer at the World Cup. The goal proved the difference as Belgium held on to defeat Russia, 1-0, and secure a place for themselves in the knockout rounds.
Although Belgium’s starting XI amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars in combined transfer fees, the side had trouble gelling and never looked totally on the same page throughout the game.
Russia’s central trio of center backs of Sergey Ignasevic and Vasily Berezutskiy and midfielder Denis Glushakov completely negated the effect of Belgium forward Romelu Lukaku and midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, both of whom were decidedly less than effective.
Belgium’s Dries Mertens, who scored the game-winner for Belgium against Algeria, had a few opportunities early in the match but couldn’t do enough with his few chances in the first half. Belgium were also handed a blow midway through the first half when left back Thomas Vermaelen was forced off with a knee injury, being replaced by Jan Vertonghen in the 31st minute.
Russia’s best chance of the game came just a couple of minutes before the halftime whistle. Oleg Shatov whipped in a cross from the left wing and forward Alexander Kokorin was left wide open between Belgium defenders Daniel Van Buyten and Vincent Kompany. However, Kokorin’s open header from 10-yards out floated well wide, wasting a crucial chance.
After a sleepy first 75 minutes, Eden Hazard came to life right as Mertens was substituted for Kevin Miralles. Hazard’s runs became more dynamic with and without the ball and he worked his way into the box on a couple of occasions, though the final ball didn’t meet its target.
It looked as though it wasn’t going to be Belgium’s day as Miralles hit the post on a free kick. Finally though, in the 88th minute, Belgium pierced Russia’s defensive armor.
Another mazy run by Eden Hazard ended with him cutting a ball back to Origi in the box. Origi had space and time to take a touch before lifting a shot into the roof of the net, setting off wild celebrations in the stands at the Maracana.
Belgium nearly made it 2-0 but Miralles had a shot go wide of goal, but the Group H favorites held on to reach the knockout rounds of the World Cup.