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Belgium face tricky Russian challenge

Rio de Janeiro: Rallying to beat Algeria in their opening game, Belgium can reach the World Cup knockout phase with a win over Russia, at the Maracana, here, on Sunday.

Marc Wilmots’s ‘golden generation’ got off to a shaky start in the tournament, falling behind to a Sofiane Feghouli penalty in Belo Horizonte last Tuesday before late goals from substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens took them home.

With Russia being held 1-1 by South Korea in their Group H opener, the last 16 is already within sight for Belgium, who are seen as dark horses to win the tournament after going through the qualifying stage unbeaten. Centre-back Nicolas Lombaerts, who plays for Russian side Zenit Saint-Petersburg, knows better than most what to expect from Fabio Capello’s side, and he expects his teammates to have a physical edge.

“Capello places lots of importance on organisation,” said the 29-year-old, whose side is appearing at a first major tournament since 2002. “We’ll have to pay attention on the turnovers. Russia are not very physical. Our structure should be an advantage in that sense.

“They’ve only got two players who are more than six-feet tall. They’ll try to hurt us by keeping the ball on the ground.”

Lombaerts is on standby to play in case Belgium captain Vincent Kompany is unable to shake off a groin injury. Captain Kompany, though, feels he’ll be fit to take the field against Russia. “I am fine… Feel I should be able to play… If everything goes well today, there shouldn't be any problems,” he said before Saturday’s training session.

Kompany missed training with the rest of the team on Friday as well, receiving treatment for the strain he picked up late in Tuesday’s game versus Algeria.

Coach Wilmots also expressed confidence on Kompany’s availability for Sunday’s contest. “Vincent felt something in the last few minutes against Algeria and couldn’t sprint at 100 per cent,” the Belgium coach said. “We decided that he’d spend two days working separately with (physiotherapist) Lieven Maesschalck and the (medical) staff.

“He should be back on the pitch on time.”

Chelsea playmaker Eden Hazard, creator of Mertens’s winning goal against Algeria, is also expected to be fit despite sustaining a bruised toe during the Algeria game.

Should Russia lose, Capello’s side would find themselves on the brink of elimination ahead of their final game against Algeria on Thursday. Russia needed a 74th-minute goal from Aleksandr Kerzhakov to rescue a point against South Korea after goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev’s blunder had allowed Lee Keun-Ho to break the deadlock.

It was a low-key opening for a team that had pipped Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal to an automatic berth during the qualifying stage, but Spartak Moscow midfielder Denis Glushakov has urged his side to put it behind them.

“We should forget the first game because it’s past and we have to focus on the game against Belgium,” he said. “We have a huge responsibility on our shoulders, so we have to try to do our best to get the three points to get a chance to qualify. We know the Belgian players are really good and they have top players playing in the best clubs of Europe.”

Glushakov’s position in the team is under threat from Dynamo Moscow midfielder Igor Denisov, while Kerzhakov’s goal in Cuiaba has strengthened his claim to be part of the starting XI.

There’s a possibility that CSKA Moscow playmaker Alan Dzagoev will replace Zenit’s Oleg Shatov in the No.10 role. “We have to play better against Belgium,” says defender Sergey Ignashevich. (AGENCIES)