Belgium edge past Russia into final 16

updated: February 25, 2007 09:27 IST
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Shizuoka, Japan:

Belgium scored two goals in a nerve-racking final 12 minutes, beating Russia 3-2 in their Group H finale Friday and scraping through to the second round of the World Cup. Vladimir Beschastnykh scored a second-half equalizer after Belgium had gone ahead in the seventh minute on a brilliant free kick from Johan Walem, and it looked like the Russians would advance. But substitute Wesley Sonck restored the advantage in the 78th minute, and Marc Wilmots added the third four minutes later. Dmitri Sychev cut Belgium's lead again in the 88th minute, but that wasn't enough for the Russians, who needed a draw to qualify for the round of 16. Japan won Group H with seven points after beating Tunisia 2-0 in Friday's other match, and will now face Turkey in the second round. Belgium, which ended a World Cup drought of seven consecutive games without a win, finished second with five points, setting up an encounter with Brazil. Russia finished third with three points, followed by Tunisia with one. The Red Devils took the lead when Walem, who returned to the side after being dropped for Belgium's 1-1 draw with Tunisia, looped a left-footed drive from 25 yards over the wall and into the top of the Russian net, leaving 'keeper Ruslan Nigmatullin no chance. Beschastnykh equalized in the 52nd minute, knocking in a ball that rolled away from Belgian 'keeper Geerd De Vlieger, who had made his first save of the game to deny Dmitri Sychev. The goal was enough to ensure qualification for the Russians, who started to pull back to defend their goal. Belgium was now in desperate need of another goal, and with time running out coach Robert Waseige replaced Mbo Mpenza with Sonck, the top scorer in the Belgian league last season. The gamble paid off. In the 78th minute, Sonck got his head to Walem's corner kick, leaving Nigmatullin sitting dejected on the ground while Sonck did a backflip and a cartwheel. Four minutes later, a searing left-footed strike from Wilmots grazed Russian captain Viktor Onopko's foot then smashed into the net, sealing the victory for Belgium. The entire team ran to the dugout to celebrate with coach and players. Sychev's shot in the 88th minute restored some pride to the Russians, and they put increasing pressure on the Belgian goal, but the red-shirted players were able to hold off the attack until the final whistle. Belgium was boosted by the return of Schalke 04 left back Nico Van Kerckhoven, who had missed the first two games with a groin injury. Russia was without its star player, offensive midfielder Alexander Mostovoi, who also missed the first two games with a thigh injury. Injury troubles piled up during the game as Yuri Nikiforov was stretchered away shortly before halftime. Lineups:Belgium: 1-Geert De Vlieger, 3-Glen De Boeck (4-Eric Van Meir, 90), 5-Nico Van Kerckhoven, 7-Marc Wilmots (c), 8-Bart Goor, 10-Johan Walem, 11-Gert Verheyen (6-Timmy Simons, 78) 15-Jacky Peeters, 16-Daniel Van Buyten, 18-Yves Vanderhaeghe, 22-Mbo Mpenza (9-Wesley Sonck, 70). Russia: 1-Ruslan Nigmatullin, 2-Yuri Kovtun, 3-Yuri Nikiforov (18-Dmitri Sennikov, 43), 4-Alexei Smertin (22-Dmitri Sychev, 34), 5-Andrei Solomatin, 7-Viktor Onopko (c), 8-Valery Karpin (16-Alexander Kerzhakov, 84), 9-Egor Titov, 11-Vladimir Beschastnykh, 15-Dmitry Alenichev, 21-Dmitry Khohklov. Referee: Kim Milton Nielsen (Denmark)