Belgium Beats Russia With Late Counterattack

It was the second straight game in which Belgium scored a late winner, and it set up the Belgians as the clear favorites to win Group H. That would mean a date against the second-place finisher in Group G, possibly the United States, to open the knockout stage.

Updated: June 23, 2014 07:29 IST
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Rio de Janeiro: After an hour, the fans were whistling. A few minutes later, the stadium's giant video screens flashed a shot of a man asleep in his seat. With Belgium playing Russia, it was that kind of day - until suddenly it wasn't.

With one lightning-quick counterattack - a rare moment of excitement in the 88th of 90 dreary minutes - Belgium grabbed a 1-0 victory Sunday and a place in the World Cup's Sweet 16.

It was the second straight game in which Belgium scored a late winner, and it set up the Belgians as the clear favorites to win Group H. That would mean a date against the second-place finisher in Group G, possibly the United States, to open the knockout stage.

"We didn't play a very good match," said Eden Hazard, whose pass led to the winning goal. "The last 10 minutes were good. That's all."

The goal was scored by Divock Origi, a 19-year-old who plays for Lille in France. Origi, whose father once played for Kenya's national team, has made only four appearances for Belgium, half of them in the past week. He entered the game as a substitute for the more established - but again ineffective - Romelu Lukaku in the 57th minute.

Long and lean, Origi still looks more like a prospect than a polished player. Coach Marc Wilmots said he had no plan to bring Origi to Brazil until the veteran Christian Benteke tore his Achilles' tendon in April. Now Wilmots keeps sending Origi on instead of better-known players at his disposal, and he keeps reaping the rewards.

The winning play Sunday began with a strip of the ball at the edge of Belgium's penalty area - a Russian fan would have called the play a clear foul - and a quick pass ahead to midfielder Kevin de Bruyne near the center circle. De Bruyne flipped the ball up the side to Origi, who nudged it on to the more capable feet of Hazard and sprinted for the goal.

Hazard beat defender Andrey Yeshchenko and cut the ball back to where Origi had subtly dropped off the play. He sent a shot off the fingertips of goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, and Belgium, which had wasted all of its earlier chances, at last had a goal.

The players ran to Origi, Wilmots ran onto the field, and the announced crowd of 73,819 - which at one point had chanted in Portuguese about "second-division" soccer - released a collective thank-you cry. The goal seemed a reward: something, anything, from a game that had produced few chances and at least one nap.

Belgium was the better team in the first half, during which de Bruyne and Dries Mertens teamed to torment the left side of Russia's back line. But each chance was undone by a poor final pass.

Wilmots was forced to use an early substitution to replace defender Thomas Vermaelen in the first half - Vermaelen had been hurt in pregame warm-ups - and that limited his options of catalysts for his offense as Russia began to tire in the sun. He sent out Origi in the second half and hoped that Hazard, his best player, would rise to the occasion.

"You have to be patient," Wilmots said.

To the Russians, who had their own chances, the goal and the result seemed cruel. Their coach, the Italian Fabio Capello, had used one striker, Alan Dzagoev, and was readying another when Belgium suddenly scored.

"We tried to win the match, and we were subjected to a counterattack," Capello said in Italian. "That's all there was."

© 2014, The New York Times News Service

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