SAO PAULO – Reduced to 10 men for over half the match, Belgium still beat South Korea 1-0 on Thursday to finish atop of Group H and eliminate the last Asian team from the World Cup.
With a late goal yet again, Belgium made the difference in the 78th minute when defender Jan Vertonghen followed up a shot from teenage striker Divock Origi and tapped in the rebound past goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu.
“We knew all games were going to be tough,” said Belgium coach Marc Wilmots. “But even with 10 men, we still pushed forward. These guys are really hungry.”
After three narrow victories and precious little beautiful play, Belgium will now play the United States in Salvador on Tuesday.
“Mission accomplished,” said Wimots.
And along with Iran, Japan and Australia, South Korea departed as the last team from the Asian federation, all in the first round.
Algeria finished second in the group after a 1-1 draw with Russia — a result that meant South Korea needed a four-goal win to advance.
They never came close.
“All of our players did their utmost. They gave it their all but I think that it was my shortcoming, my failing as a coach that caused this result,” said coach Hong Myung-bo.
The former captain of the 2002 team which reached the semifinals did not offer his resignation, though.
South Korea did not go without a strong fight, landing the ball on Belgium’s crossbar on the hour-mark and testing standout goalie Thibaut Courtois with several shots afterward. Yet even with a man up, the Koreans could never pressure Belgium enough to find an opening and paid the price.
For scorer Vertonghen it was a bit of redemption after he caused the penalty against Algeria in the opener which forced Belgium into late histrionics to come back and claw out a 2-1 victory.
“I really felt bad after that but now only joy is left,” he said.
Belgium promised to play with flair in this tournament but is proving that it’s still a master at grinding out results.
“It gives us so much confidence to get those nine points with only 10 men and prepare for the Americans in that mood,” Vertonghen said.
Having a goalie like Courtois does make it easier, especially as its defense was missing injured starters Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen. But the Belgians also proved they sorely lacked the creative skills of Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, who were on the bench from the start.
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For the Algeria squad, this has been a tournament of breaking new ground.
First, Algeria won its first World Cup match since 1982 — a 4-2 victory over South Korea, and then on Thursday it qualified for the knockout stages for the first time.
Islam Slimani’s 60th-minute headed equalizer was enough to gain his team a 1-1 draw against Russia and the one competition point it needed to place second in Group H behind Belgium.
Now, Algeria has another 32-year anniversary on its radar.
On Monday, the Algerians will meet Germany in the Round of 16 in Porto Alegre.
The teams haven’t met since 1982 when Algeria beat West Germany, one of the tournament favorites, with Lakhdar Belloumi memorably stroking home the winner.
Though it went on to win another game in that tournament, Algeria failed to qualify for the second round of the World Cup after West Germany and Austria played out a result that suited both of those teams.
The European teams, meeting a day after Algeria had won its last group game, knew that a 1-0 win for West Germany would put both through to the second round at Algeria’s expense.
Qualification for the second round in Brazil finally allows the team from north Africa to move on from one of the World Cup’s most contentious episodes.