Fortaleza (Brazil), June 18 (PTI): Hosts and World Cup favourites Brazil were on Tuesday left to wait for their knock-out round qualification with a stubborn Mexico holding them to a goal-less draw while dark horses Belgium bounced back from a goal down to beat Algeria 2-1 on the sixth day.
Brazil would have booked a round of 16 berth had they beaten Mexico but little known goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa produced at least two stunning saves in a heroic display to deny the Selecao a win in a high-voltage Group A clash here.
The 28-year-old Ochoa, who plays in France for AC Ajaccio, first thwarted Neymar’s 26th minute header with a spectacular dive to his right and then blocked Thiago Silva’s headed attempt in the 87th minute to the huge groan of the sea of yellow-clad Selecao fans.
Superstar Neymar, who scored two goals in Brazil’s 3-1 opening match win against Croatia, had plenty of the ball and made some threatening runs into the rival box under hot and humid conditions at Estadio Castelao.
But ultimately, the five-time champions failed to break down the stubborn Mexican defence and the seemingly impenetrable wall thrown around their goal by Ochoa. Mexico survived the grinding offence from Brazil and frustrated the hosts’ march to the second round.
After today’s draw, Brazil and Mexico occupy to top spot in Group A on four points each. The group, which also has Croatia and Cameroon as other teams, is now wide open.
In a Group H match in Belo Horizonte, Belgium made a stunning rally to beat Algeria 2-1 with two second half goals.
Widely billed dark horse to lift the trophy, Belgium had to toil hard to erase the 0-1 deficit after Algeria had taken a surprise lead in the 25th minute against the run of play through a penalty kick conversion by Sofiane Feghouli.
Belgium, whose most of players ply trade in top European clubs, turned the match on its head with two goals in the space of 10 minutes.
Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini equalised in the 70th minute through a glancing header before substitute Dries Mertens made a fierce finish with a low shot for the winning goal in the 80th minute.
South Korea then held Russia 1-1 in another drawn match in the same group under hot and humid conditions at Cuiaba.
Alexander Kerzhakov rescued Russia in their first World Cup finals match since 2002, scoring three minutes after coming on as substitute.
The Zenit St Petersburg striker was brought on after rival substitute Lee Keun-Ho put South Korea ahead with a 30 metre shot that Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev disastrously parried over his head into the net. The result left both countries — with one point each — trailing Belgium who head the Group H table with three points.
Russia, who host the 2018 finals, were looking to make an impact in their landmark return. They owed their saved honour to Kerzhakov who scored his 26th international goal.
But, Tuesday’s talking point was the heroics by Ochoa who denied Neymar and Co. a win at the same venue where Brazil had beaten Mexico 2-0 last yeat in the Confederation’s Cup.
Brazil dominated the first half with more possession and applied pressure mostly from the left through Marcelo, Oscar and Neymar trying to break down the Mexico defence.
The first chance for Brazil came in the 14th minute with Marcelo breaking down and trying to get the ball across the Mexican box. Fred and Paulinho had half-chances, but neither could find the target.
Mexico sat back defending for most part of the first half but 24th minute saw Hector Herrera finding space to smash the ball towards the Brazil goal only to be tipped over by goalkeeper Julio Cesar.
Neymar was denied a goal in the 26th minute as his header off a Dani Alves cross was palmed away by Ochoa diving to his right in one of the most fabulous saves in the World Cup so far.
Ochoa again denied Brazil another goal in the 43rd minute with another brilliant save. A Neymar freekick was chested down by Thiago Silva and there were three Brazilian players unmarked inside the box. Paulinho tried to lift the ball over Ochoa, but the keeper magnificently kept it out.
Brazil coach Filipe Scolari substituted largely ineffective Ramires at the right attacking side by Bernard in the second half but kept an out-of-sorts striker Fred to continue till the 67th minute before being replaced by Jo.
The first 15 minutes of second half saw Mexico attacking with some fine moves and Brazil losing momentum. Mexico had three fine long range efforts aiming to test Caesar but all of them flew above the bar.
The momentum then shifted to Brazil and the yellow clad home supporters had a huge groan after Neymar’s stinging left footer was again blocked by goalie Ochoa, the third spectacular save of the match.
A Jo strike from acute angle off a Marcelo pass in the 75th minute went wide as Brazil pressed frenetically for a goal.
Ochoa was at it again when he somehow was at the right position to block a Thiago Silva header off a Neymar free kick.
Algeria had no luck like Mexico as they conceded two goals in the final 20 minutes after taking a surprise lead in the 25th minute. Belgium left back Jan Vertonghen pulled down pacy Sofiane Feghouli on the edge of box and Mexican referee Marco Rodriguez did not have any hesitation to point to the dreaded spot.
Velencia winger Feghouli coolly converted the penalty kick, placing the ball to the left of wrong-sided goalkeeper Thibaut Courtios.
Feghouli’s goal was Algeria’s first World Cup goal since Djamel Zidane scored against Northern Ireland in 1986.
Belgium had a dominating 65 per cent possession in the first half but failed to break down the stubborn Algeria defence.
Otherwise, it was a half of few chances. Defensive midfielder Axel Witsel had Belgium’s best two opportunities: powerful 25-yard shots parried by the Algeria goalkeeper in the 21st and 34th minutes.
Just before half time, Chadli Nacer had a fine chance off an assist from Eden Hazard but his shot was too feeble to create any problem to Algeria goalkeeper Rais M’bolhi.
In the second half, Belgium coach Marc Wilmots, who has never lost a competitive fixture as national team coach, made four substitutions.
Sluggish Romelu Lukaku was replaced by Divock Origi in the 58th and Fellaini came in for Mousa Dembele in the 65th minute and more muscular approach paid off.
Fellaini headed in a pinpoint cross from De Bruyne’s and 10 minutes later it was Mertens who made use of the space left by the tiring Algerians to take the game away from the Africans.