Vine: Teenager Divock Origi strikes late to give Belgium victory over Russia
When Scotland played the USSR at the 1982 World Cup, one Scottish fan famously dealt with the clash of ideologies by producing a banner which read, ‘Alcoholism v Communism.’
One ideology has proved more durable than the other but if there was a tagline for the game between Belgium and Russia at the Maracana on Sunday, it would have been a bit more unwieldy. The banner would read, ‘Oligarchy (and alcoholism) v Sustainable Structures Implemented to Ensure Young Players Maximise Their Potential.’
For a long time, it was hard to tell the difference between the two forces after a game which looked like it might tie with Greece-Japan as the tournament’s dullest.
Then one ideology struck. The Belgian poster boy Eden Hazard skipped down the left, beating tired Russian defenders with relish. He got to the by-line and pulled the ball back for substitute Divock Origi. There had been some suggestions that the 19-year-old would start and his devastating finish suggested he may yet get a promotion.
Belgium’s young players, on whom so many hopes rest, had combined to put them through to the last sixteen.
Russia, meanwhile, have more questions to answer. They are hosts of the next tournament (something which seemed to have prompted little comment) and have been led by Fabio Capello, whose €8 million a year salary is reportedly taken care of by the billionaire owners of Anzhi Makhachkala and Spartak Moscow, with a characteristic lack of flair..
Their disappointing result against South Korea had increased the pressure on the side which had been expected to provide a sporting release for the rise in patriotism in Putin’s land.
Instead they had to deal with shame, which will now increase, especially Igor Akinfeev who made a grovelling apology following his mistake that led to South Korea’s goal. “It was not about the ball, it was about my hands,” he said meekly. “What can a goalkeeper who has made a child’s error think about? Any normal person should apologise and reprove himself at this time. The goalkeeper of the national team should not let in such goals.”
Belgium’s problems are unlikely to be encountered by Russia. They were everybody’s tip to cause a surprise before the tournament. In fact it was going to come as a surprise if they didn’t cause a surprise. They have been unconvincing in their first two games even if they have qualified, something which may suggest they have been feeling the weight of expectation. Their talent is extraordinary and while some will dispute that it was as well-planned as is sometimes suggested, they were a side that played with fluidity.
At least they had before the tournament began. They had needed goals from substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens as they came from behind against Algeria. Both players started against Russia as Marc Wilmots’ side began with a purpose.
There were plenty of Cariocas - drawn from the section of Rio society who could afford tickets - who had taken the opportunity to attend a game which didn’t appeal to the romantic.
The beating heart of this tournament has been South American, with exceptions like France and Ghana, and nobody expected Capello’s Russia to change that.
Belgium had struggled against Algeria and Romelu Lukaku again highlighting against Russia how important the injured Christian Benteke had been to their system.
Mertens was as lively from the start as he had been when sent from the bench while. Axel Witsel and Fellaini in midfield were making it difficult for Russia to implement their gameplan, whatever it was.
Russia looked ponderous, especially Alexander Kokorin upfront of whom so much had been expected but whose day was summed up by the header he put wide shortly before half-time.
The opening minutes seemed to conform to the clash of ideologies. Belgium played with cohesion while Russia hoped to capitalise on a mistake. Thibaut Courtois saved from Victor Fayzulin but this was a brief interruption to the game’s flow which involved Witsel and the outstanding Fellaini winning the ball and finding Mertens who spent the first half causing most of Russia’s problems.
Fellaini, himself, was benefitting from playing in a side where he knew his role and had the support of his team-mates.
But if Belgium had the appealing structures, Russia had the highly-paid coach and they began to edge forward as the first half progressed, closing the space down around Mertens who then switched to the left before Kokorin blew the half’s best chance.
The society Sunday crowd took their time getting back to their seats but there wasn’t much to rush back for as Belgium faded and Russia took the game to Wilmots’ side without much conviction.
Belgium’s talent was being restrained by a lack of adventure and while Russia will expect to beat Algeria in the final game, Capello has bad memories from Cape Town four years ago of what can happen against Algeria.
In the final minutes, both sides had attempts to win it with the Russian supporters jeering at yet another wasted ball before substitute Kevin Mirallas hit the post with a free-kick. Hazard then skipped around defenders in the box before his shot was deflected wide.
Hazard had waited a long time to play but now he was devastating, running down the left and playing the ball back into the path of Origi who drove the ball into the top of the net.
Russia are looking towards 2018 as well and they may be patient with the young players in the side, although they are unlikely to feel the same way about Capello after another failure.
Belgium’s young players have emerged hesitantly into the World Cup light but they may feel now they can cause the shocks so many people said they would.