The FourFourTwo Preview: Belgium vs Russia
The dark horses ride again and attempt to negotiate their second fence: Don Fabio's Russia.
If the mark of a good team is its ability to win while playing very badly, then Belgium can be classed in the 'good' bracket. Playing very badly indeed against Algeria in their opening game – or more accurately being made to play very badly by the harrying North Africans – Belgium fell behind to Sofiane Feghouli's penalty and reached a point so desperate that they had to bring on Marouane Fellaini. The rest is recent history, of course: Fellaini bounced the equaliser home off his microphone, Belgium went on to score again and the dark nags of Brazil 2014 were off to a flying start.
(As an aside, Fellaini's goal came after five minutes of World Cup action, a slightly improved return on no goals in 1,431 minutes for Manchester United last season).
Belgium will hope to play better than they did against Algeria but they may not need to to beat Fabio Capello's Russia, a nation considered to be in a period of transition and with both eyes on hosting the 2018 finals. (Another aside: Capello is apparently the highest paid coach at these finals, paid a reported £7 million. He recently signed a new contract that runs until the end of the 2018 World Cup. The two things may just be connected.)
Russia's 1-1 draw with South Korea felt like depressing déjà vu for England fans – a plodding performance reminiscent of those we had to endure in South Africa, complete with a moment of goalkeeping suicide where the ball became a bar of soap – for Robert Green 2010 read Igor Akinfeev 2014.
Belgium should have too much legs for a creaking Russia, who accept they would be overachieving to reach the last eight and would be happy with scraping through to the last 16. A point in this one would keep them on track and that aim may dictate how they approach the game. Like Algeria before them, expect defence may be the best form of defence.
What the local media say
"The victory of the Red Devils against Algeria was more than deserved," wrote Belgian daily De Standaard. To prove its point, it quite unexpectedly quoted Gordon Strachan. "The Belgians are physically the strongest team I've ever seen," said the Scotland coach. DS was most impressed by Belgium's ability to do the dirty work, even if things here may be slightly lost in translation. "For all that will be said that the Red Devils in the Spanish play by their knitting, they also know what's fight. Just ask the burly Algerians." Indeed.
Key battle: Lukaku vs Ignashevich/Berezutski
Lukaku scored both goals the last time Belgium faced Russia, a 2-0 friendly win in Voronezh in November 2010. If Diables Rouges are to progress as far as most people think they will then he will need to significantly up his contribution and weigh in with some goals. Ordinarily second choice behind the crocked Christian Benteke, Lukaku showed why against Algeria, failing to register a single touch in the opposition area in his 58 minutes on the pitch. Must do better.
Facts and figures
- Belgium are unbeaten against Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Which sounds grander than it actually is as that's only W2 D1.
- The first and only other time they met in a World Cup finals, current Belgium coach Marc Wilmots scored in the 3-2 group stage win in 2002.
- The last 8 goals that Russia have scored in World Cup finals matches have come after half-time.
More FFT Stats Zone facts
Belgium's reputation may take another knock against a team looking for a point. Another ground-out win. 1-0.