A late goal by teenage substitute Divock Origi was enough to secure Belgium a 1-0 victory over Russia and a place in the round-of-16 of the World Cup on Sunday.
Belgium, who have yet to lose a competitive match under coach Marc Wilmots, confirmed their tag as dark horses for the trophy, while Russia, who are to host the 2018 finals, have just a point and face a huge task to qualify.
It leaves Russia’s Italian coach Fabio Capello potentially facing an even earlier exit than the one four years ago when in charge of England when they went out in the round-of-16.
The win left Belgium as clear Group H leaders with a maximum six points from two games after their 2-1 win over Algeria.
While Wilmots’ decision to take off out-of-sorts striker Romelu Lukaku and send on Origi proved an inspired one, it also produced the sole sour note as the older striker looked to be furious as he took his place on the bench.
“I know people are not happy to be on the bench, but what is important is Belgium being able to rely upon totally devoted players when they are called upon,” said Wilmots, whose substitutions in the opening game also proved to be masterstrokes. “For the last 20 minutes I had people dying to be brought off the bench.”
Origi, who plays for Ligue 1 side LOSC Lille Metropole in France, for his part was overcome at scoring in such an arena as the Maracana.
“It was very special to score here at the Maracana in the World Cup,” Origi said. “I hope I have paid back some of the confidence the coach has shown he has in me.”
Capello, whose contract runs until the 2018 World Cup, had a penalty shout turned down in the first half which irked the Italian.
“But I’m not thinking of speaking about the referee,” Capello said.
Both sides made a bright start and the opening minutes saw chances at each end.
Victor Fayzulin swept into the penalty area and fired in a low effort that Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois smartly stopped low to his right.
Belgium responded with Dries Mertens pulling the midfield strings. Mertens accelerated into the danger zone only to thump an effort wide off the right-hand post of Igor Akinfeev, who coach Fabio Capello had kept faith with, despite his blunder handing South Korea their goal in the opening game.
Mertens drilled another effort wide as Belgium, World Cup semi-finalists in 1986, turned the screw.
With the runners-up in the group likely to face Germany, assuming the three-time champions top their group, there was every incentive for both sides to chase the win.
Russia enjoyed a purple patch as the opening half came to an end, Fayzulin smacking a volley just over following a corner.
Denis Glushakov, booked for clattering Mertens, then crossed for Alexander Kokorin, who avoided being the meat in a Jan Vertonghen-Vincent Kompany sandwich, but sent a free header off target.
Having endured a 56-minute virtual no-show from Lukaku, Wilmots — once again urged to don a jacket by stewards to avoid his white shirt being taken for a Russia one — sent on Origi.
Playmaker Eden Hazard defended Lukaku, despite his moody reaction to being replaced, and said both he and Origi deserved credit.
“They both have different styles. Romelu didn’t get a lot of space to work in, but he played his part in tiring the Russia defense,” he said.
Watching royals King Philippe and Queen Mathilde saw Belgium survive a huge let-off with 12 minutes remaining when Andrey Eshchenko found space, but dragged his shot just wide.