Belgium will be looking to put the seal on top spot, while South Korea are badly in need of their first win of this 2014 World Cup to stand a chance of avoiding a flight home after the two sides meet in Sao Paulo on Thursday.
After huge hype surrounding them coming into the World Cup, Belgium have delivered in terms of results so far. Victories against Algeria and Russia mean that they go into their final game assured of a place in the last 16 in what is the country’s first major tournament in 12 years. However, Marc Wilmots’s team have been far from convincing thus far; certainly they look some way off a side capable of making a real mark in the latter stages.
Getting a point to ensure finishing first in the group and likely avoid a Round-of-16 meeting with Germany will be the first priority, but a more complete performance also wouldn’t go amiss. Against Algeria, Belgium were behind for a long period to Sofiane Feghouli’s penalty before substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens came on to each get a goal in a late turnaround. Both then started against Russia, but in an insipid game it was largely another lackluster performance.
Thus far it has been a case of individual moments from forward players rescuing average team performances. In the opening win, Napoli winger Mertens changed the game with his direct running and eye for goal, while it was only when Eden Hazard got going late on that Belgium looked like a threat against Russia. Wilmots has been hampered by an absence of natural full-backs, a lack of passing quality in central midfield and the loss to injury of striker Christian Benteke, but the former Belgium international has so far has struggled to knit what remains a strong group of players into a cohesive side.
Several positions remain undecided, not least up front. Romelu Lukaku is on one hand a quality replacement for Benteke, but he lacks the same ability to combine with players around him. The Chelsea man has disappointed in both appearances so far and may even be replaced against South Korea by the player whose pace and movement off the bench helped enliven the clash with Russia, Divock Origi.
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It could be one of several changes. Defenders Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen will both miss the match through injury and Wilmots strongly suggested that he would use the South Korea match to give some fringe players a chance to impress.
“I have a very good core of players and I had a number of players who wanted to show what they can do, I could see it when they trained,” he said, according to Reuters.
“But there is a lot of competition. Now I have the opportunity to include fresh players, players who have not played for two or three weeks. Those who are coming to the pitch have a lot to prove, they can showcase what they can do and there will be a lot of competition on the pitch.”
That could be good news for a South Korea side that will need a win coupled with Algeria failing to beat Russia in the concurrent final Group H match and an improvement in goal difference to make the Round of 16 for the second successive World Cup.
It would take a significant improvement on what they have produced so far in Brazil for Myung-Bo Hong's team to make that scenario a reality. Thus far, disappointing results in the buildup for the World Cup, including a 4-0 dismantling at the hands of Ghana, have carried over to the competition-proper.
In their opening match when taking on an uninspiring Russia team, South Korea were gifted a lead through a goalkeeping mishap, but let it slip late on. Against Algeria it all went desperately wrong in the first half when a porous defense was exposed time and again to leave South Korea 3-0 down at the interval. While there was some fight back in the second half to make the final score a more respectable 4-2, a lack of decisiveness in both penalty areas remains the major issue for a young squad.
While Bayer Leverkusen’s Heung-Min Son has shown odd flashes of his quality, South Korea simply don’t have enough going forward at this level and could well again be forced to bring on towering striker Shin-Wook Kim and go the direct route. It may not be the most entertaining of matches, if a changed Belgium team again lacks cohesion. But once more their greater individual quality might just see the Red Devils over the line.
Belgium 1-0 South Korea
Betting odds (bovada.lv)
Belgium win: 20/29
South Korea win: 4/1
Where to watch: The World Cup 2014 Group H match will kick off from the Arena de Sao Paulo in Sao Paulo at 4 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by ESPN.