Key Battles That Will Shape Russia's World Cup Clash with Belgium

Dan Sheridan@@dansheridanContributor IJune 21, 2014

Key Battles That Will Shape Russia's World Cup Clash with Belgium

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    Felipe Dana/Associated Press

    Belgium are looking to take a giant step towards the World Cup knockout stages on Sunday, but standing in their way is a Russia side desperate to set the record straight. 

    Fabio Capello's men were far from their best in a lacklustre 1-1 draw with South Korea on Tuesday, and the Italian boss will demand vast improvement in Rio de Janeiro.

    Likewise, Marc Wilmots' Belgians were given a real fright in their Group H opener, where two goals in the last 20 minutes saved them from defeat to Algeria.

    Both countries will look to improve on their previous performances this weekend, and here Bleacher Report looks at some of the key battles that will shape the clash.

Romelu Lukaku vs. Vasili Berezutski

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    Romelu Lukaku (left)
    Romelu Lukaku (left)Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    After a disappointing shift that lasted just 58 minutes against Algeria, Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku will have a point to prove against the Russians—but he'll face formidable opposition. 

    Vasili Berezutski was handed the captain's armband for the match with South Korea on Tuesday, and the newly-installed skipper lead by example from centre-back.

    His experience alongside CSKA Moscow teammate Sergei Ignashevich is one of Russia's great strengths, and they'll need to draw on that know-how against their creative Group H rivals.

    Lukaku will be doing all he can to stay focused. Reports back in England, such as Jamie Anderson’s in the Daily Express, suggest Jose Mourinho is planning to push the forward out of the Chelsea exit door this summer.

    But there are more immediate concerns for the 21-year-old, and silencing his doubters will be at the top of his to-do list this weekend.

The Goalkeepers

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    Igor Akinfeev needs to put his howler versus South Korea behind him
    Igor Akinfeev needs to put his howler versus South Korea behind himLee Jin-man/Associated Press

    Igor Akinfeev and Thibaut Courtois endured severely contrasting fortunes in their World Cup openers earlier this week, and their reaction to such disparities will be crucial on Sunday.

    Between the posts for Belgium, Courtois was largely a spectator against Algeria, and the only shot on target he faced was the penalty that gave the North Africans the lead.

    Meanwhile in Cuiaba, Akinfeev made a mistake that will haunt the goalkeeper for the rest of his career when Lee Keun-ho's seemingly harmless shot squirmed through his hands and into the net.

    In truth, the CSKA Moscow stopper looked shaky all evening against South Korea, and his error count will need to be zero if his side are to get anything from this weekend's tie.

Yuri Zhirkov vs. Toby Alderweireld

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    Toby Alderweireld
    Toby AlderweireldIan Walton/Getty Images

    By the time Russia woke up to fact they were 1-0 down against South Korea on Tuesday, Yuri Zhirkov had already been replaced by goalscorer Aleksandr Kerzhakov.

    The ex-Chelsea winger had threatened on occasion in Cuiaba but seemingly ran out of ideas as the tie wore on and cut a dispirited figure as Fabio Capello rang the changes after the break.

    Against Belgium, however, the left-sided star may enjoy more luck, with Red Devils' boss Marc Wilmots opting to play a defence made up entirely of centre-backs.

    On the right, Toby Alderweireld looked increasingly uncomfortable in the early stages against Algeria, and if Zhirkov is in the mood, he could enjoy a productive stint against the Atletico Madrid man.    

Mousa Dembele vs. Alan Dzagoev

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    Alan Dzagoev
    Alan DzagoevElsa/Getty Images

    Russia looked a different proposition following Alan Dzagoev’s 59th-minute introduction against South Korea, and Fabio Capello must be sorely tempted to hand him a start this weekend.

    His direct running style and eye for a pass altered the pattern of the game on Tuesday, and in a creative sense, the 24-year-old could make all the difference against Belgium.

    If the CSKA Moscow man is included, Mousa Dembele will have to work extra hard alongside Axel Witsel and offer his back four vital protection in a deep-lying midfield role.

    The Tottenham Hotspur man, who made way for goalscorer Marouane Fellaini during the victory over Algeria, will have to curb his attacking instincts, but he won’t mind one bit if his side comes out on top.