|City||Rio de Janeiro|
Daniel Van Buyten
Kevin De Bruyne
If there was one man you could guarantee would stand aloof from the general joie de vivre of this World Cup, it was Fabio Capello. He is living this World Cup as he lived the last, grimly battering away criticism as drab tournament performances fail to live up to the promise of qualifying. The Sovetsky Sport columnist Yury Tsyban had described Capello's football as being whisky after the champagne of Guus Hiddink at the Euros in 2008; this felt more like a £3.99 cava grabbed as a last resort at the garage on the way home after a late night.
Not that Belgium were much better. They had offered almost nothing in the second half before suddenly being stimulated by a Kevin Mirallas free-kick that hit the post with seven minutes remaining. Eden Hazard, uninvolved until then, woke up and, after having a shot deflected wide for a corner, set up the winner with a darting run to the byline, before cutting the ball back for Divock Origi to take his time and smash a shot past Igor Akinfeev. All three of Belgium's goals at this tournament have been scored by substitutes, which has brought two victories and passage to the last 16, but it was another scratchy display from a side widely tipped as potential winners.
It was another disappointing day for Romelu Lukaku, who struggled to impose himself and was clearly frustrated to be withdrawn early in the second half, by which point he had played 113 minutes in this World Cup and touched the ball in the opposition penalty area only once.
"We didn't play a very good match," Hazard said. "The last 10 minutes were good, that's all. It was complicated for Romelu – he didn't have much space. Divock took advantage of the space at the end of the match."
Origi, who has been at Lille for two years and turned 19 in April, would not be in the squad but for the injury to Christian Benteke. "I've followed him in the last four months," said Marc Wilmots. "He has the profile of a young player but he is disciplined and fast. Nobody knew him when I first fielded him but you can see his qualities, the way he has integrated into the team."
Capello spent the majority of the game standing in the corner of his technical area, arms folded, sleeves of his blue shirt thrust up to the elbows, leaning slightly backwards in that disdainful way he has, glowering at the dour midfield tussle in front of him as the two 4-2-3-1s cancelled each other out. Given how poor Russia had been in their opening game, that was perhaps all Capello ever intended: a desperate scrap between six players in the middle of the pitch with everybody else involved only peripherally.
"I thought it was an excellent match," he insisted. "It was played at great pace and great intensity. Because of the intensity we made mistakes but so did they."
The Italian had resisted calls to introduce the more flamboyant Alan Dzagoev or even Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who had come off the bench to score the equaliser against South Korea.
He did, though, bring in the 22-year-old forward Maksim Kanunnikov, for just his third cap as Russia looked to exploit the occasional clumsiness of Toby Alderweireld at right-back. Every Russian attack in the first half – not that there were many – seemed to go down that flank, but too often their passing was too sedate and their threat was limited.
With Dries Mertens at the heart of most of what attacking threat Belgium presented early on, most of the first half was played in one half of the pitch, as though both teams had decided to make the most of the sunshine and avoid the shade on the other flank.
It was from the sunshine that Russia produced their only real chance: an Aleksandr Kokorin header that flashed wide at the end of the first half.
"Physically we were stronger, fitter," said Wilmots. "I think the Russian team needed another 10 or 15 minutes in them: you could see some players were looking at their feet." It was for that reason that Hazard capitalised. "He dribbles very well," Belgium's coach added. "He looks for spaces but you have to be patient."
Belgium did just enough and could easily have added to their lead as Russia chased the game in the closing minutes. Russia, meanwhile, can only try to beat Algeria in their final match and hope that is enough to make it through. For Capello, this World Cup may turn out to be even worse than that of four years ago.