SAO PAULO, Brazil ― Belgium may be sitting comfortably atop Group H, but the team’s quest for points ahead of the round of 16 means it will play as hard in its match against South Korea as in any other game, coach Marc Wilmots said Wednesday.
After victories over Algeria and Russia, Belgium has sealed its entry to the knockout rounds even before its final group match against a struggling South Korea.
Wilmots said the team nonetheless has prepared for the match just like any other and aim to rack up as many points as possible.
“If we had zero points we would have prepared exactly in the same way,” he said, explaining that the team has reviewed Korea’s videos, set pieces and weaknesses.
But he declined to predict Korea’s strategy of play, as the Asian team drew 1-1 with Russia last week but suffered a heavy 4-2 defeat to Algeria on Sunday.
“I can’t say how Korea is going to start its own match. ... They had a very good match against Russia. However, they conceded four goals against Algeria, so this may have an impact on their spirits,” he said. “But we’ve prepared this match just like any other match, and we want to score as many points as possible.”
Belgium and Korea meet for the fourth time on Thursday, 16 years after Wil-mots and Korean coach Hong Myung-bo faced off at the France World Cup as midfielder and defender. The two teams drew 1-1. In other meetings, Belgium beat Korea 2-0 at the 1990 World Cup and 2-1 in a 1999 friendly.
Wilmots also said he would rest some key starters and use the match to give younger players a chance for some experience and to keep them “fresh.”
“We wanted to reach the knockout stage. This has been achieved, and we won’t settle with the round of 16. We want more than that,” he said.
“This is a very good World Cup. Lots of goals have been scored. But if we want to go further than the round of 16, we have to keep our players fresh.”
Thomas Vermaelen is out with a knee injury, and captain Vincent Kompany will not play after sustaining a groin injury in Belgium’s opener against Algeria last week, the coach confirmed, adding that the injuries were not serious. He earlier said Axel Witsel and Toby Alderweireld, who each earned a yellow card against Russia on Sunday, would sit out as another would lead to a one-game suspension.
Wilmots is also expected to rest star midfielder Eden Hazard, while struggling striker Romelu Lukaku could be replaced by Divock Origi, the 19-year-old Lille forward who scored his first international goal to topple Russia 1-0 on his fourth cap.
“I have a very good core of players, and I had a number of players who wanted to show what they could do. I could see it when they trained,” Wilmots said. “Now I have the opportunity to include fresh players who have not played for two or three weeks … and those who are coming to the pitch have a lot to show.”
He added that he had very good attacking players who were eager to showcase their abilities, and giving them some playing time would encourage a “very positive competition on the pitch.”
Following Thursday’s matches, Belgium heads to Salvador on July 1 to take on the No. 2 of Group G, consisting of Germany, the U.S., Ghana and Portugal. The runner-up of Group H, between Russia, Algeria and South Korea, will play Group G’s top seed in Porto Alegre on June 30.
By Elaine Ramirez, Korea Herald correspondent