Belgium rally after Defour red
SAO PAULO -- Three thoughts from 10-man Belgium's 1-0 win Thursday over South Korea in the final game of Group H.
1. 10-man Belgium show character
They may have been down to 10 men, but that didn't stop Belgium moving up to nine points. It is a perfect record that raises even more interesting questions about a team that had provoked such discussion before this World Cup began.
Belgium may not have dazzled in the way many anticipated, and there is something of a disconnect between the quality of their performances and the quantity of their points. At the same time, they did show an awful lot of character.
Consider the broader details, even from this match. In the first game, with so much pressure on them given the pre-tournament buildup, they came from behind to beat Algeria 2-1 -- and that against a side that also ended up qualifying for the second round. In the second game, against a hugely obdurate Russian side, they displayed resilience to score in the 88th minute. Finally, there was this 1-0 win over South Korea.
Steven Defour may have been sent off for the worst kind of stamp, but it only brought out the best in Belgium's second string. Despite going down to 10 men against a side desperately trying to get the win to follow Marc Wilmots' side through, they stood strong to claim a third consecutive win.
If there is still a sense that the manager is not quite maximising the fluid talent Belgium possess, he does deserve credit for fashioning that sense of collective. You could see it in the huddle after the game. It was also a message Vincent Kompany was keen to get across beforehand, as he said that such a young team should actually be praised for their maturity. Defour apart, they showed it on Thursday night.
2. Asia expects . . . more
As history was made for Africa, the Asian sides are going to have to consider the future. While Algeria ensured that the CAF had two teams getting out of a World Cup group stage for the first time, the AFC suffered a second tournament out of the past three in which all sides were eliminated in the first round.
Right now, the breakthrough campaign of 2002 feels a lot further back than 12 years ago. That will certainly be true of South Korea, who reached the semifinals of that tournament on home soil. Here, they never came close to replicating the cohesion and rigour of that team.
Indeed, there was a disappointing meekness about their attacking, as has been the case throughout this tournament. One eventual desperate chance in the last few minutes summed it up, as Lee Keun-ho attempted a flick by the post. It seemed like he should have scored, but you never got the feeling it was on. That was the case for their campaign.
Although 2002 legend Hong Myung-bo had seemed to bind the side together again as coach, there wasn't the same end product. They impressed in places, but never enough to actually impose themselves on anyone. They will not be imposing on the latter stages.
3. Starters orders
If Belgium's win wasn't exactly undeserved, there was a curiosity to the eventual manner of it. Jan Vertonghen became the country's first starting player to score a goal since Wilmots himself in the 2002 World Cup. The irony is that there has been so much speculation about the Tottenham Hotspur defender's place in the team, and he was one of seven players involved against Korea who did not start the previous game against Russia.
In that, Wilmots' side displayed their depth as well as resilience. There were a few fine performers -- Defour apart. Here, the midfielder's challenge deserves specific criticism. It could not even be said to be one of those challenges with an aggressive but somewhat unfortunate follow-through. It was a disgraceful stamp in which the intent on his face seemed all too clear.
Thereafter, though, Belgium's second string rallied well. Adnan Januzaj continued to suggest his quality, Kevin Mirallas offered hugely productive running, and Mousa Dembele was everywhere across the middle. They are a side that are going to make it difficult for opponents, even if they are not as easy on the eye as previously anticipated. The United States have been warned.