Belgium clinched the top spot in Group H with a 1-0 victory over South Korea on Thursday in Sao Paulo, as they continued their 100 per cent record in the World Cup despite having a man sent off in the first half.
Defender Jan Vertonghen slotted home from close range with just over 10 minutes remaining to secure a third successive victory for Marc Wilmots’ side, who had earlier seen Steven Defour shown a red card for a poor two-footed challenge on the stroke of half-time.
Belgium will now face the United States in the last 16 of the competition, a game scheduled for Tuesday in Salvador. They will be unable to call upon Defour for that meeting, but a number of their key players should be well rested for it, with Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany among those who didn't start the game in Sao Paulo.
South Korea, meanwhile, are out of the competition after accumulating just one point from their three group stage matches.
They finished bottom of Group H, with Algeria the other side to qualify for the knockout rounds following their 1-1 draw with Russia.
Belgium, already through to the knockout rounds prior to kick-off, decided to shake things up a bit with their formation, as Kevin Mirallas was asked to lead the line and Adnan Januzaj, among a number of others, made his first start of the tournament.
South Korea knew they had to win to have any hope of going through to the last 16 and kept a similar line-up to their first two matches. Their most notable change came in goal—as Kim Seung-gyu was asked to keep the Belgian hordes at bay.
Both sides had chances in the first half, with only some sloppy finishing denying the Belgians from taking the advantage. Dries Mertens was guilty of wasting one gilt-edged chance just six yards from goal, before Anthony Vanden Borre thought he deserved a penalty after being dragged down inside the box.
South Korea were not without their threat, however. Thibaut Courtois was forced into one sprawling save to keep out Ki Sung-yueng’s long range strike, as the Atletico Madrid goalkeeper then struggled to deal with a few dangerous corners.
There appeared little danger of the deadlock being broken, however. Belgium, for all their pace and trickery, seemed to be lacking a cutting edge in front of goal, while South Korea just did not quite have the quality to expose their opponents on the counter-attack.
Then, just before half-time, the equilibrium of the contest was disturbed. Defour went in two-footed on Kim Shin-wook out on the far touchline, and the referee had no hesitation in showing the midfielder his marching orders. Replays suggested it was probably a fair decision.
In the second half, South Korea—needing to get the win to keep their hopes alive—pushed forward with greater intent, as Ki once again forced Courtois into action. They began knocking on the door but were let down by their finishing, with Lee Keun-ho squandering a decent opportunity as Belgium's less-familiar defensive pairing of Nicolas Lombaerts and Daniel van Buyten held firm.
Belgium had dropped deeper following Defour's exit but looked dangerous almost every time they went forward, with Marouane Fellaini missing a close-range header before Divock Origi, a second-half substitute, made himself known as he nearly got on the end of a couple of half-chances inside the box.
As it would turn out, Origi would be crucial to breaking the deadlock with just over 10 minutes remaining. South Korea, growing increasingly desperate, had begun pushing more and more men forward, leaving themselves exposed at the other end. Fellaini led one such breakaway and flipped the ball to the supporting Vertonghen, who then found Origi on the edge of the box.
The 19-year-old’s snapshot was saved but spilled by Kim and there was Vertonghen, rushing in to slot home the rebound with the minimum of fuss.
The blow seemed to take any remaining wind out of South Korea’s sails, as they struggled for enthusiasm in their remaining pushes forward. Passes went astray and crosses into the box proved easy for Courtois to gather, as Origi enjoyed more and more influence as the Europeans pushed forward the other way.
In the closing minutes Hazard replaced Mirallas, as he forced a smart save from Kim. It seemed to spark an end-to-end last few minutes, with South Korea looking to leave the competition with something to savour and Belgium looking to add an extra flourish to proceedings.
Neither would achieve that ambition, although Courtois did make one smart save, denying substitute Lee Keun-ho's clever backheel.
Belgium, many people’s dark horses at the start of the competition, now continue, with growing hopes for their chances of glory over the coming weeks.
|South Korea Player Ratings|
|Player||Half-time rating||Full-time rating|
|Belgium Player Ratings|
|Player||Half-time rating||Full-time rating|
|Daniel van Buyten||7||7|
|Anthony Vanden Borre||6||6|
Afterward, Belgium coach Marc Wilmots was proud of his players. He said to The Associated Press (via Daily News (New York):
We knew all games were going to be tough. But even with 10 men, we still pushed forward. These guys are really hungry.
Wilmots' opposite number, Hong Myung-bo, blamed himself for his country's exit. Per Reuters:
I think all the Asian teams here at the World Cup did their best, but I guess the wall is very hard for us to get over.
The players did their best, but it was my shortcomings as a coach that caused this result.