Teenage forward Divock Origi turned a listless Belgian performance into a late 1-0 win over Russia on Sunday, enough to qualify for the next round of the World Cup with two straight victories.
Belgium barely contained a reinvigorated Russia for most of the match, yet struck with a blistering final spurt of class and opportunism to turn a bad situation into a wild celebration for coach Marc Wilmots in the 88th minute and hugs all around at the fulltime.
“It was not easy, but we never gave up,” Wilmots said.
After its dour 1-1 draw with South Korea, Russia produced the kind of sparkle and dominance that most had been expected more from Belgium in front of 73,819 increasingly restless fans at Maracana stadium.
With Belgian King Philippe looking on, substitute Kevin Mirallas hit a freekick against the post in 84th minute, setting off a late revival. At first it looked like late moves from Eden Hazard would only camouflage a dismal performance.
But then the playmaker made a move into the area on the left and spotted Origi free in the center. A pinpoint pass from Hazard and cool right-foot finishing from the 19-year-old Origi gave Belgium more than it deserved.
Belgium didn’t play with any real authority for most of the game on a bright, sunny afternoon in Rio, confounding predictions that it should be one of the teams to watch at the World Cup.
Piling on the pressure
Instead, it was Russia which piled on the pressure in the second half and was let down by its blunt finishing touch. It gave goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois his 100th professional clean sheet at age 22.
Belgium moved to six points with the win, five ahead of Russia and South Korea - the Koreans were playing Algeria later Sunday.
“Now we will build a party, but then it is back to work as of tomorrow,” Wilmots said.
Belgium was lucky to head into halftime with the score locked at 0-0.
It escaped a penalty in the 26th minute, when German referee waved on play after defender Toby Alderweireld was late with a challenge on Maksim Kanunnikov in the area. And, with Russia surging relentlessly, striker Alexander Kokorin found himself unmarked from nine yards (meters) with an open header on goal, but he put it just wide.
While most critics had been expecting a defensive Russia against Belgium, coach Fabio Capello decided otherwise and the addition of 22-year-old Maksim Kanunnikov gave some zip to the team that it so badly lacked against South Korea.
Wilmots promoted his two substitute goal scorers from the 2-1 win over Algeria to the starting lineup and while Dries Mertens thrived on the right wing, Marouane Fellaini was sloppy and ineffectual in the center of midfield.
Once Russia’s central defense of Sergey Ignashevich and Vasily Berezutskiy worked out how to control the Belgian passing combinations, momentum changed. After the early massive cheers for Belgium from the crowd, shouts of “Ro-ssi-ya, Ro-ssi-ya,” took over.
Even if Vincent Kompany had recovered from a groin strain to play a polished first half, the surprise call-up of defender Thomas Vermaelen to start the game totally backfired.
The Arsenal defender injured his knee in the warmup and lasted only 31 minutes before limping off.