GROUP H: BELGIUM 2, ALGERIA 1
Everyone's World Cup dark horse showed up late to the first race – but once Belgium found their stride and a winning strategy, more than an hour into their Group H opener, they sped past upset-minded Algeria for a 2-1 victory in Belo Horizonte.
Drawn, taken, converted: Sofiane Feghouli did it all in giving Algeria a 1-0 lead in the 24th minute. He made a late run into the box on a counter, drawing a penalty when Jan Vertonghen made a two-handed grab on his left arm, and then coolly finished from the spot. Keeper Thibaut Courtois made a short move to his right, and Feghouli slotted the ball into the right center of the goal.
Sit back and wait: With the early lead, the Desert Foxes had the luxury of keeping the game in front of them – maintaining defensive shape, clearing Belgian mistakes and looking for the occasional breakout. That approach held past the hour mark, before the early use of all three substitutions signaled a tactical change for the European side.
Big hair, big header: Belgium finally began to try cutting through the Algerian defense, instead of attempting to break it down with patient buildup, and the switch paid off. Divock Origi, who came on in the 58th minute, fired the first salvo with a blast that Rais M'Bolhi had to save with his leg. Then Marouane Fellaini, just five minutes after his 65th-minute entry, got onto Kevin De Bruyne's long cross and headed it home for the equalizer.
Decisive counterpunch: Pressing forward in an attempt to pull back all three points, Algeria left themselves open in the back – and that was all the opening Belgium needed for the 80th-minute match-winner. De Bruyne's takeaway in Belgium's end ignited the counter, Eden Hazard's cross found Dries Mertens on the right side, and Mertens took one touch before driving a screamer into the back of the net.
Man of the Match: De Bruyne. The baby-faced midfielder put his cross in perfect position for Fellaini's equalizer, then made a gutsy tackle to start the winning counterattack as the favorites completed their comeback.
GROUP A: BRAZIL 0, MEXICO 0
Mexico and Brazil played to a scoreless draw Tuesday at Estadio Castelão in Fortaleza in the teams’ second Group A match, a result that came with completely different meanings for the two sides.
While both teams are now sitting comfortably atop the group after wins in their tournament openers, the host country’s lofty expectations make anything less than a win for Brazil a disaster. El Tri, meanwhile, have shed the disappointments of their CONCACAF qualifying challenges and are now in great position to advance out of the group.
MEMO HUGE AGAIN: Mexico manager Miguel Herrera’s much-discussed decision to start Guillermo Ochoa in goal (following his huge performance against Cameroon) paid off once again with another monstrous game from the veteran goalkeeper. After a handful of gigantic saves throughout the match, Ochoa saved the game for Mexico in the 86th minute with a brilliant reaction save on a Thiago Silva corner-kick header.
He kept it scoreless through the first half first with a stunning outstretched save just inside his right post on a Neymar header in the 26th minute and then again in the 44th on a point-blank Paulinho shot. Then in the 69th minute, he turned away Neymar again on a reaction save at the near post on a left-footed blast.
JÚLIO CÉSAR NOT BAD, EITHER: The Toronto FC ‘keeper’s biggest save of the night came in the first minute of stoppage time, going low to palm away a Raúl Jiménez shot from the right wing for just his second save of the match.
BACK AND FORTH: Both sides had their chances to net the winner, with Brazil dominating much of the action early in the first half and then Mexico making a push late in the first and then right off the break. And then with the home crowd pushing Brazil forward late, Mexico did well to hold on through a furious Seleção push.
MEXICO STAND PAT, HULK OUT: Herrera stuck with the identical side that beat Cameroon 1-0 in the Group A opener last Friday, with Oribe Peralta and Giovani dos Santos up top and Javier Hernández once again on the bench. "Chicharito" did come on for Peralta in the 74th minute. Brazil had no such choice, as Hulk was unavailable for selection due to a knock picked up in training, replaced by Ramires on the right wing.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Ochoa, Mexico. The floppy-haired netminder's stock continues to rise in this World Cup with a handful of huge saves against Brazil and six overall in the match. Good news for El Tri and Ochoa’s free-agent club status.
GROUP H: South Korea 1, Russia 1
The World Cup’s final opening-round match waited until the final minutes before providing its best moments Tuesday night at Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba.
South Korea’s Keun-Ho Lee and Russia’s Aleksandr Kerzhakov traded late goals to give their teams a share of points as their foray into Group H finally got underway.
SUPER SUBS: Right after the opening goal for Keun-Ho in the 68th minute, who South Korea head coach Myung-Bo Hung sent on in the 56th minute for Chu-Young Park, a move by Russia head coach Fabio Capello paid off when Kerzhakov blasted home a rebound off South Korea goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong in the 74th minute. Kerzhakov had just come on in the 71st minute for Yuri Zhirkov.
SHAKY AKINFEEV: Some of South Korea’s best chances at a goal – before they ultimately struck in the 68th minute – came on some questionable moments for Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. In the 52nd minute, a bouncing shot by Ki Sung-Yueng ricocheted off his chest before he was able to gobble it up. In the 58th minute, another bouncer on a Kim Young-Gwon free kick gave Akinfeev problems, but he was once again able to gather it in before South Korea were able to get to the rebound. Akinfeev’s problems finally came back to haunt Russia on Keun-Ho’s goal on a long blast that slipped through the CSKA Moscow captain’s hands.
LEGEND OF HONG: The South Korea manager, the star of South Korea’s 2002 semifinal World Cup team and former LA Galaxy standout, is leading what is believed to be his country’s best team since that tournament. A draw against Russia side playing without midfielder and captain Roman Shirokov is an inauspicious start for the Red Devils.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Ki Sung-Yueng, South Korea. In a game with few standout performances, it was the young playmaking midfielder who created the most dangerous moments.