FINAL: Belgium 1, South Korea
Belgium's Jan Vertonghen knocked in a rebound in the 78th-minute against South Korea, virtually sealing up the top spot in Group H. All Belgium needed was a draw, regardless of what happened between Algeria and Russia, and it would win Group H and assure itself a date with the US. Belgium held on to win 1-0 as it claimed victory in all three group matches.
Interestingly, though, all three wins came by just one goal, and it managed to win the group with just four total goals.
Manager Marc Wilmots chose to rest a number of his regular starters, but even still, it was hardly an intimidating showing. Midfielder Dries Mertens missed a point-blank shot in the first half and Marouane Fellaini missed another chance off a header in the second. Belgium also had to work significantly harder than it wanted to in the second half as Steven Defour earned a red card just before halftime.
South Korea had a flurry of chances from Sung-Yueng Ki and Heung-Min Son, especially at the end, but Thibaut Courtois parried them away. It would've needed a minor miracle to advance, including a Russian victory, which of course didn't happen as Algeria drew Fabio Capello's side 1-1.
Wilmots subbed in Eden Hazard, who's already recorded two assists in the World Cup, late just so he could get a quick run in, but he's clearly the catalyst for this Belgium attack. Perhaps that's why it looked relatively lifeless against South Korea on Thursday. Wilmots had the benefit of sitting Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Axel Witsel and Kevin De Bruyne -- a luxury the US wishes it could've had coming out of the Group of Death.
But the US coach isn't complaining about the chance to move on and test itself against one of Europe's best teams. And in return, having withstood the Group of Death, there's no chance that Belgium is taking this underdog US squad lightly.
92' -- Nasty challenge on Vanden Borre, whose ankle got caught underneath a South Korean challenge. Walking gingerly.
90' -- Little bit of a flurry here from South Korea. Huge blast from Keun-Ho gets pushed away, but South Korea hasn't given up even though its World Cup chances are gone.
89' -- Hazard NEARLY gives his side a two-goal lead off a near-post blast. Good save from Seung-Gyo, but that gives you an idea of how dangerous Hazard can be, just minutes into his shift.
87' -- Eden Hazard coming in late for Kevin Mirallas. Probably just to get a solid run in.
85' -- Nine men back for Belgium, which is extremely keen on holding this lead (and the ball) for the rest of the match.
Vertonghen drops in the rebound for the goal. That goal is on Seung-Gyu. Should've done better with the initial shot.
US now very likely to face Belgium in its Round of 16 match.
77' -- GOAL!!!! BELGIUM!! Defender JAN VERTONGHEN cleans up an easy rebound, likely giving Belgium first place in Group H. A draw would suffice, but now Belgium's got the lead.
76' -- Bo-Kyung dancing around in the box, but still, no space in front of the net. Great clearances from Vanden Boore and Vertonghen.
72' -- Selfish play from Belgium's Chadli on the left left flank. He carried it all the way into the box, but passed up a chance to lay it off to Origi in lieu of a low percentage chance.
71' -- Great tackle in the box from Jeong-Ho on Origi. Saves a clear chance for the striker.
67' -- Fellaini misses the header opportunity in the center of the box. Just angled it wrong. Typically can at least put it on net.
SUB: Shin-Wook coming off, Bo-Kyung Kim on.
South Korea continues to make major in-roads into the box. Suspect defense from the tiring Belgians.
GROUP H UPDATE: Algeria has tied it 1-1.
SUB: Mertens and Januzaj off for Chadli and Origi. Divock Origi scored the game-winner late against Russia.
60' -- Now Sung-Yeung nearly heads one in off a corner kick. South Korea is pressing and it senses Belgium is tiring with a man down.
59' -- Son Heung-Min banks one off the crossbar. Was intended to be a cross from the right side but kissed off and nearly wound up in the net.
58' -- Great attempt from the top of the box by Mertens but Seung-Gyu knocks it away. Fellaini on the rebound attempt, but nothing's there.
54' -- Belgium backline holding strong, but it's undoubtedly an advantage for the US that the Belgians are playing with 10 men. Fitness could be an issue come the round of 16.
It could get very interesting if South Korea manages to park one in the net. If Belgium loses and Algeria were to win, the US would face Algeria.
51' -- Everything's coming down the right flank for the South Koreans, but still no real chances inside the box. Just as I say that, Keun-Ho draws a corner then nearly heads it in off the quick re-start.
49' -- Dembele with a yellow as he clips Sung-Yueng.
48' -- Looks like Eden Hazard may come on as a sub. Midfielder is catalyst of Belgian attack.
46' -- Someone really wants South Korea to pull this out:
Impressive work, fellas pic.twitter.com/KIZlqJG6lp— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) June 26, 2014
Quick recap: US will face Belgium unless Belgium loses and Algeria wins. Then the US would face Algeria. Belgium goes into the second half with 10 men. Let's get it on.
HALFTIME: Belgium 0, South Korea 0
Not much to the first 45 as both sides more or less know their fates. Belgium can guarantee itself the top spot in Group H with a draw, and it also helps that Russia (one point) currently leads Algeria 1-0.
Dries Mertens had a huge opportunity fall to him, but he simply botched the chance from point-blank range and sent it flying over the bar. South Korea nearly scored off a corner, but Courtois hugged the post and kept it out. If the results hold, Belgium will win Group H.
The only other development of the first half was Defour's needless red, which will set Belgium back in terms of personnel this half.
Defour's red. Just a cheap, dirty challenge:
44' -- Red for Steven Defour. Belgium down to 10 men. Awful challenge on Kim Shin-Wook as Defour goes studs up on his lower leg. Just stomped him. Won't play against US but hadn't played in either of the first two matches. Not a huge loss, but it still makes life harder for his teammates in the upcoming half.
42' -- Maybe it's just because these aren't Belgium's traditional starters, but haven't really been impressed with their attack so far. Lots of crosses along the edges, but nothing up the gut of South Korea's defense.
Mertens' touch is just a bit heavy:
35' -- Lots of physical defense from the South Koreans. Jeong-Ho draws a yellow for wrapping his arm around Belgian winger, and the ensueing shot is tipped away by Seung-Gyu. Close call.
34' -- Defour to Mertens again in the middle, but he misses badly. Offsides was called, but it shouldn't matter. He's got to put that on net and test the keeper.
31' -- Impressed with keeper Seung-Gyu. Good instincts and has shown fearlessness when coming off his line.
25' -- Dries Mertens badly misses a wide-open chance off a throw in. Ball was deflected in the box and fell directly to Mertens, who blasted it over the bar. Not even close.
23' -- Mertens with an incredible angled pass to Mirallas in the middle, but he can't find space for the shot. Mirallas' wheels could put US's halfbacks in a bind.
20' -- Mirallas correctly called for offsides when he's played a through ball from midfield. Still knocked it in, though.
17' -- Vertonghen with an ambitious chance off a free kick, can't put it on frame. Not a lot of chances for either side.
14' -- Heung-Son carries the ball into a some dangerous space along the left side of the box but opts to cross it instead of firing off a shot. Wrong decision.
11' -- Belgium defense hasn't looked too confident either. South Korea maintaining the ball in its attacking third, and Belgium's been unable to interrupt possession.
8' -- Young-Gwon climbs Fellaini fighting for a ball. That's not legal. Set piece coming for Belgium far left side.
6' -- Poor cross down the left side from Dries Mertens but he's been extremely valuable in the first two games. Could be a nightmare in the middle against US.
For those just checking in, this Belgian team looks a lot different than the one the US could be seeing in the round of 16. Marc Wilmots giving his stars a bit more rest.
3' -- Moussa Dembele down after a head-to-head collision in the air. Unsure if he's coming out or not.
1' -- We're underway from Estadio Corinthians. Nervous start from South Korea backline.
PREGAME: The Belgians (six points) are as close to locking up the top spot in Group H as a team can be, but their work isn't finished. A win or a draw against South Korea would guarantee it the top spot in Group H -- and thus a date with the United State in the round of 16. That's exactly why US fans should pay attention to today's game.
While it's important to get a sense of what Belgium is like, keep in mind that Marc Wilmots isn't playing his full squad as he maintains an eye towards the next round. Seven changes to his starting XI, and that means no Eden Hazard or Vincent Kompany, but they may come on as subs.
South Korea, as slim as it might be, still has a chance to advance if it were to dominate this Belgium side. Don't count on it, but South Korea is still playing for its first win in this World Cup.
Starters for South Korea: Kim Se, Lee Y., Kim Y., Hong, Yun, Lee C.Y., Han. Ki, Son, Koo, Kim S.H.
Starters for Belgium: Courtois, Vanden Boore, Van Buten, Lombaerts, Vertonghen, Defour, Dembele, Mertens, Fellaini, Januzaj, Mirallas
Belgium vs. South Korea (Group F) | Kickoff: 6/26, 4 p.m. ET | Stadium: Corinthians
Match Preview: At this stage of group play, it all boils down to motivation. Belgium, having won its first two games, is already through to the knockout stages, but it has yet to officially win Group H. The only way Belgium loses its tight grip on first place -- a scenario that likely would mean Belgium takes on Germany in the knockout stages -- is if Belgium loses to South Korea and Algeria beats Russia. Separated by just one goal at the moment, that scenario could see Belgium lose its perch atop Group H.
Despite its six points, the Belgians do have an incentive to play better. At times, the Belgians looked dangerous against Russia in its 1-0 win, but for the most part, the Group H favorite was relatively pedestrian. Eden Hazard is the sparkplug for Belgium as his vision has now set up two game-winning goals in group play. Hazard fed Dries Mertens for the second goal against Algeria to open group play, and he found Divock Origi in front of the goal in the 88th minute against Russia. Fellow midfielders Kevin De Bruyne and Mertens have been dangerous on counters and could be lethal against a South Korea team reeling from its recent 4-2 defeat to Algeria.
South Korea's defense was a mess against the Desert Foxes. Unorganized, lackadaisical, ugly. To have any chance against Belgium's stars, it must maintain its shape along the backline, and keeper Jung Sung-Ryong will need to stuff chances from multiple attacking angles. Aside from halting Belgium's attack, South Korea needs to score in bunches to make up ground in terms of goal differential. That responsibility falls to Son Heung-min, who was excellent against Algeria. Lee Keun-Ho is another impact striker who could interrupt Belgium's conservative plans.
Marc Wilmots, with an eye towards the knockout rounds, will bench Axel Witsel and Toby Alderweireld as each both hold a yellow card. Romelu Lukaku may not play either, but that's due to lack of performance as opposed to a precautionary. Thursday's match represents a chance for Belgium to get its gears right before the elimination games. Whether South Korea can alter those plans remains to be seen.