Group H: A slow start for the Golden Generation
If Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard and company are to emulate the footsteps of the fabled 1986 squad that included Jean-Marie Pfaff and Enzo Scifo, then they have to perform much better than their fortunate 2-1 Group H win over Algeria.
Their collective and individual reputations preceded the Belgians ahead of their tournament kickoff, with several featuring with Europe’s crème de la crème in club football. Dubbed the new “Golden Generation” of Belgian footballers, this was supposed to be their moment to shine in Brazil.
Yet like a classic Tintin comic plot, the Algerians, bolstered by several French mercenaries, contrived to upset the script after just 25 minutes – with some help from the unwitting villain Jan Vertonghen. So much for putting four centre backs in one sturdy bank of defence.
As stunning as it was seeing Courtois turned mere mortal by a Sofiane Feghouli penalty, what Algeria were about to do was somewhat more shocking – sit back, hang on to the lead and hope for the best. Perhaps these North Africans had not heeded the prevailing trend in this World Cup.
Vahid Halilhodzic should have consulted Vincente Del Bosque and Oscar Tabarez on how not to sit deep and defend the lead. Six times this tournament have we seen teams who were trailing ultimately fighting back to snatch a win – and a seventh was to come.
For the penalty – Algeria's first World Cup finals goal in 28 long years – was also to be their only shot on target throughout their game. Thus a golden opportunity to smash the disarrayed golden boys went abegging and Marc Wilmots was allowed to take stock and make changes.
Three changes were made from the Red Devils’ bench 20 minutes into the second half and it wasn’t long before two were to make decisive contributions that turned the tie around – creating the typical happy-ever-after ending with the leads emerging triumphant – Tintin-style.
That Afro-head must have had some genius inside that we have been sorely missing this season – what else prompted a doomed David Moyes to shell out huge money for this suddenly game-changing midfielder?
At least Marouane Fellaini retained his football intelligence with Belgium, having made stupidity the theme at Manchester United. Surely the timing of his run – and the sight of his hair – must have left the Algerians so bewildered that they had no time to react. 1-1 it was – and game on for Belgium.
From there on, Belgium's Golden Generation started to showed they were worthy of their respective price-tags. Once they clicked into gear, as they had so impressively done in the European qualifiers, there was no stopping them.
A 2-1 win it was for the land of Tintin at the final whistle. The hero boys saved the day with three precious points. Surely Wilmots – Belgium football’s Professor Calculus – will need to reconfigure his tactical plans if his Tintins are to make the impact their potential and pre-tournament hype promised us.
Kimchi too hot for Capello and Russia to handle
Then there was another group of “Golden Generation” players – those hailed by South Korea head coach and World Cup hero Hong Myong Bo. Judging by pre-tournament form – all losses, the first World Cup without their 21st - century legend Park Ji Sung appeared set for disaster.
What critics had forgotten was Hong was getting his young men – the majority of whom had played under him in their bronze-medal winning campaign in the 2012 London Olympics – to display the rojak army stew first.
In other words, show the second rate stuff, make all the mistakes and only unleash the kimchi and soju for the real deal.
From the word go, the soju group showed they were more than a match for the Russians.
Not as silky as Japanese sake, but these young Koreans showed they would carry the Ji Sung legacy with finesse. Technical sublimity, as shown by Son Heung Min, was mixed impeccably with the traditional Korean steel and tenacity.
One Russian certainly found the Korean combo harder to handle than the rest (I don’t think we have to remind the Italians of the special East Asian flavour). With every rocket the white shirts threw at him, all the CSKA keeper could do was swat them out of the way.
His opposite number, Jung Sung Ryong, was also finding the vodka harder to take than his colleagues. No catches were made as he flapped at the shots and crosses that came his way.
Both would eventually find their respective tasks too hot to handle. Lee Keun Ho’s shot was not the trickiest nor most powerful in the world, but yet it must have packed some spice to have Akinfeev comically fumble it into his own net.
Then you have to hand it to Jung as he returned the compliments moments thereafter. While he made a good save, it was the direction that allowed Aleksandar Kerzhakov to have all the time in the world to put the ball in the net three minutes after coming on.
A priceless free gift to the Zenit St. Petersburg frontman, but nonetheless Capello’s sweat-soaked shirt at the final whistle perhaps cames as much from the kimchi onslaught he was taking from the bench as the equatorial conditions in Cuiaba.
As for the Taeguk Warriors, the real business has come and they look to have passed the first test. Should they repeat their 2010 run into the Round of 16, this lot of Koreans could end up really being a new “Golden Generation” in their own right.
A football scribe with his heartbeat on the local and Asian pulse, Gary Koh desires to follow in the footsteps of the Special One to become the Ultimate One. He reckons his Football Manager and Championship Manager experience makes him an ideal fit to revive Singapore’s fortunes on the Asian and world stage.