Another late goal by Belgium overcame South Korea and completed a 100 per cent group stage record, setting up a last 16 tie with the United States for Eden Hazard and his team-mates.
The Chelsea Player of the Year was introduced late on against the Koreans in Sao Paulo on Thursday night, with Belgium manager Marc Wilmots having rung the changes with his side already qualified for the knockout stages. Top spot needed securing though and they did that despite playing the second half with 10 men.
Thibaut Courtois was retained between the posts but Romelu Lukaku joined Hazard on the bench and it was a game of few genuine chances before Dries Martens badly squandered one midway through the first half, lifting the ball over the target from close range. Belgium also had a very good shout for a penalty turned down when Anthony Vanden Borre was tumbled over.
South Korea had an outside chance of qualification and Courtois was fully extended to keep out a low shot from Sunderland’s Ki Sung-yueng during their best spell. Soon after the keeper was in place to scramble away the ball from the foot of the post but Steven Defour got there first to clear. The same midfielder ended the half in disgrace when he collected a red card for a dangerous challenge.
After the restart Mertens had a go from distance, which was saved, and the Koreans were quickly up the other end, hitting the bar with a miss-directed cross over Courtois who claimed a header from a corner soon after.
The winner came from Jan Vertonghen on the follow-up after the keeper had found a shot from Divock Origi, on again as sub, too hot to hold.
Hazard came on with 87 minutes played and had an angled-drive well saved, and Courtois was called into action twice more to preserve his second clean sheet of this World Cup.
Algeria finished runners-up to Belgium and play Germany who needed only a draw to progress out of the group stage, but they beat the USA with Andre Schurrle involved late on, while Ghana’s defeat by Portugal sends them home.
Christian Atsu started his third game in Brazil and completed the 90 minutes for the first time, but having come back from a goal down at half-time in Brasilia, Ghana lost 2-1 to a late Cristiano Ronaldo goal.
A single strike was enough for Germany to beat Jurgen Klinsmann’s United States side in heavy rain in Recife. That came on 55 minutes, a sweet strike from the edge of the area by Thomas Muller to draw him level with Neymar and Lionel Messi on four goals for the tournament.
The USA put their opponents under pressure at times but a combination of timely defending and poor finishing kept their chances out. Schurrle was introduced on 89 minutes, replacing Mesut Ozil, and had time to shoot on target but his effort was blocked.
The United States go through to the knockout due to a superior goal difference over Portugal who had the better of the early stages against Ghana.
Ronaldo hit the bar from out wide on five minutes and had a free-kick saved soon after. The Real Madrid man then should have scored with a close-range header but was denied by lightning reactions from Adam Kwarasey,
Instead it was one of his own players who eventually beat the Ghana goalie. John Boye sliced a clearance horribly but it still needed rebounds off the bar and post to go in. The defender got away with another wayward connection before half-time so Ghana went in at the interval just a goal down.
Asamoah Gyan went close with a shot shortly into the second half before levelling the match after 56 minutes, deftly heading in from an extraordinarily crafted cross from Juventus’s Kwadwo Asamoah. Majeed Waris should have put Ghana ahead from a Gyan cross as they continued to enjoy the better of game. Atsu, though contributing, was less prominent than in the two previous games.
However with 10 minutes to go, Ronaldo was gifted his first goal of this World Cup by a combination of poor defending and goalkeeping. Ghana nearly drew the scores level again through substitute Mubarak Wakaso and Ronaldo was twice denied a second goal by far better keeping from Kwarasey.
Germany play Algeria on Monday with Belgium versus the USA on Tuesday.