Belgium’s Eden Hazard attends a training session in Mogi das Cruzes on Tuesday. (AFP)
Belgium are not firing on all cylinders at the World Cup and had to grind out narrow wins over Algeria and Russia in Group H, so a game against leaky South Korea might be just what the doctor ordered.
The Belgians are considered ‘dark horses’ by many pundits to go all the way in Brazil after their star-studded squad went through World Cup qualifying unbeaten.
But they have looked far from fluent in Group H, coming from behind late on to edge Algeria 2-1 and only beating Russia through Divock Origi’s 88th-minute goal.
Belgium’s impressive qualifying campaign helped see them installed as fifth favourites to win the World Cup, but their prospects were dealt a severe blow when front man Christian Benteke ruptured an Achilles tendon in April.
Romelu Lukaku became the automatic replacement, but he has struggled to lead the line and Belgium have looked toothless without a dominant central striker.
While the win over Russia sealed Belgium’s place in the last 16, they will have to find their scoring touch if they are to go deeper in the tournament.
Playmaker Eden Hazard has so far failed to deliver the consistent performances his coach craves, and while he set up both Belgian winners in the last 10 minutes against Algeria and Russia, he knows he must do better.
“I give myself two out of 10 for the opening 80 minutes and nine out of 10 for the closing stages,” he told reporters this week. “I haven’t been satisfied with our level, especially with the squad that we have, we can do better.”
Korea can still qualify in second place with a big win, and providing the result of the other group game goes their way, but it would be a minor miracle if they keep the clean sheet they will need against Belgium.
The Koreans saw their hopes virtually extinguished on Sunday with a 4-2 defeat by Algeria.
Their shaky defence shipped three goals in the first 45 minutes and were prised apart again for a fourth in the second half to stymie any hopes of a comeback.
Prior to Sunday’s game, Algeria had scored once in 28 years at the World Cup. It was also the first time an African side had scored four goals at the tournament.
Captain Koo Ja-cheol chose to focus on Korea’s second half performance, when they scored twice early on and had Algeria rocking.
“Nothing has been decided yet,” he told Korean media. “If we have no hope then the team won’t be motivated—but we do. We will get a good result if we play like we did in the second half against Algeria.”
Factbox: South Korea vs Belgium
Where: The Corinthians arena, Sao Paulo
Referee: Benjamin Williams (Australia)
South Korea: 1-Jung Sung-ryong; 12-Lee Yong, 3-Yoon Suk-young, 5-Kim Young-gwon, 20-Hong Jeong-ho; 16-Ki Sung-yeung, 14-Han Kook-young, 17-Lee Chung-yong, 9-Son Heung-min, 13-Koo Ja-cheol; 18-Kim Shin-wook
Belgium: 1-Thibaut Courtois; 5-Jan Vertonghen, 15-Daniel Van Buyten, 18-Nicolas Lombaerts, 4-Vincent Kompany; 7-Kevin De Bruyne, 8-Marouane Fellaini, 14-Dries Mertens, 11-Kevin Mirallas; 10-Eden Hazard, 9-Romelu Lukaku
Though playing in their first finals since 2002, Belgium came to the tournament as bookmakers’ fifth favourites behind Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain.
Belgium finished top of their group in European qualifying and were unbeaten - winning eight games and drawing two to finish nine points clear of Croatia.
South Korea’s best finish at a World Cup was the semi-finals in 2002. Hong Myung-bo, who now coaches the team, was the captain during the run to the last four.
Hong and Belgium coach Marc Wilmots played against each other at the 1998 World Cup.
Previous meetings: South Korea have met Belgium on thrice previously. The first two meetings came at the World Cup, with Belgium winning 2-0 in 1990 and the teams drawing 1-1 in 1998.
Last meeting: In 1999, Belgium won a friendly 2-1 in Seoul.
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