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Jun 21, 2014

Belgium vs. Russia: 50-50 Challenge

BelgiumBelgium
RussiaRussia
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Match 31
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Igor Akinfeev's terrible error gifted South Korea the lead in their opening game, and Fabio Capello's men could only come back to draw.

Our expert bloggers will give their thoughts ahead of each game, so as Belgium take on Russia in Group H, Wim Van Walle (Belgium) and Michael Yokhin (Russia) are your guides.

What's at stake?

Wim Van Walle: History has a knack of repeating itself. In Belgium's last World Cup, in 2002, they were drawn in Group H with Russia, an Asian team (Japan) and a Northern African one (Tunisia). In the last group game, Belgium beat Russia 3-2. Since the Soviet Union was disbanded, Belgium and Russia have met on two further occasions. There was a 0-0 draw in 1996 in Brussels, and in 2010, Belgium beat Russia 2-0 in Voronezh. Romelu Lukaku, then only 17, scored both goals. More than anything, Russia will want revenge for the 4-3 loss against Belgium in the 1986 World Cup (then as the Soviet Union) in a game that has legendary status in Belgium.

Michael Yokhin: After drawing their first game versus South Korea, Russia know only too well that they must not lose this one. A draw is an acceptable result, but it will force Russia to beat Algeria in their final fixture, and there are significant doubts regarding this team's ability to go for a win at all costs against defensively minded opponents. Therefore, Russia should try to win against Belgium, without exposing themselves. A much more adventurous attitude is needed. Russia looked scared and frozen until they conceded the bizarre goal against the South Koreans. It will be a grave mistake to be so defensive against Belgium because they are definitely capable of finding the net, as they proved against Algeria in their first game.

X-factor

WV: Axel Witsel tried two shots from distance against Algeria. He seems to have the confidence to do so, and one attempt required a decent save from the Algeria goalkeeper. Russia will be well-organized, but they have to take the game to Belgium and try to get a win. Witsel will be very important in breaking down the Russian attacks. Not only is he one of the best players in the world in his position, but having played in Russia for the past two seasons, he knows his opponents very well. He is certain to try his luck again from distance.

MY: Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev will be in the spotlight after his terrible blunder against South Korea, and he is known to recover from making mistakes. CSKA Moscow coach Leonid Slutsky claimed, "Igor is one of the best in the world when it comes to recovering psychologically. It might even be good for Russia that he has conceded such a goal -- now it will be impossible to score against him." Those abilities will be put to test against a very potent Belgian attacking line. Akinfeev will certainly have a lot more work to do than in the first game, and he must be calm and confident in order to be remembered for the right reasons. Chances are that he will be up for the task.

Fear factor

WV: Aleksandr Kerzhakov may not have started Russia's first game, but he certainly made an impact when he came on. Russia head coach Fabio Capello favours the younger Aleksandr Kokorin but may well be forced to start Kerzhakov after he came on against South Korea and promptly scored. Kerzhakov, at his best, is a danger for any defence, and if Capello does give him a start, Belgium's defence will have to be very careful not to give him too much room.

MY: As I have previously discussed, Russia have significant problems when defending on the flanks, as Andrey Eshchenko is inexperienced and lacks international class while Dmitri Kombarov simply is in poor shape. The South Koreans surprisingly didn't take full advantage of that, but you can trust the Belgians to attack on the wings. Dries Mertens might have won his place in the starting lineup after scoring the winner versus Algeria, and Eden Hazard usually prefers to play on the left. Those two are fast and skilful, able to win the game by themselves by producing moments of sheer brilliance. Russia must make every effort to stop them, and therefore wingers Aleksandr Samedov and Yuri Zhirkov should drop back and help their teammates.

Key battle

WV: Having seen Igor Akinfeev's gaffe in the first game, which gifted South Korea the lead, it remains to be seen whether or not Capello sticks with his goalkeeper. Akinfeev has tons of experience but could well be shaken by his mistake. We saw the same happen to Spain's Iker Casillas, who never seemed comfortable in Spain's second game after gifting two goals to the Netherlands in their opener. Whoever starts in goal for Russia will be under immense pressure, which means the key battle will basically be between Russia's goalkeeper and whoever takes a shot.

MY: Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski versus Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian striker had an off game against Algeria, mostly because he was closed down by physical central defenders. He will be highly motivated to make his mark at the tournament against Russia and the pair of vastly experienced CSKA centre-backs must watch him very closely. Ignashevich and Berezutski are strong, good at positioning and cover each other well, but they are not fast enough, and quick Lukaku will pose a significant threat.

Prediction

WV: Belgium looked very nervous in their first half against Algeria. However, now that they have their first World Cup game under their belts, they will be more at ease. And while Russia will play a tactical game, they cannot afford to sit back the way Algeria did. There will be a lot more room as Russia must win if they want a good chance of progressing from the group. Belgium are lethal on the break and will have more opportunities to play their passing football than Algeria allowed. 2-0 Belgium.

MY: If Russia play to their abilities and are not afraid to go forward, they can take advantage of the significant problems Belgium have experienced in defence and can win. That must be their aim, and this team is much better suited to playing counterattacking football, so they will actually feel more comfortable against Belgium than South Korea. Russia head coach Fabio Capello absolutely must let his players be free and think for themselves. Unfortunately, he is not likely to do so, but a 1-1 is definitely achievable.

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