Favorites Belgium finished on top of Group H with three straight wins following left side-back Jan Vertonghen's late winner gave them a hard-fought 1-0 victory against South Korea here on Thursday.
The solo goal came in the 78th minute when the Tottenham Hotspur fullback, skipper of Belgium, drove home a rebounded ball after teammate Divock Origi's shot outside of the box was palmed away by Korean keeper Kim Seunggyu.
The Belgians, knowing as "Les Diables Rouges", were left with one man down for the entire second half. Steven Defour was sent off by Australian referee Benjamin Williams with a straight red card in the 45th minute because the Porto midfielder stepped on the shin of South Korea forward Kim Shinwook following a ferocious tackle.
"I was really sorry it happened. I could not really see it. It was a pity for Steven," said Belgian coach Marc Wilmots.
"We were doing well for twenty minutes. We were playing with our new formation with some new players. We were getting used to the game and the play was good. And all of a sudden there was a red card."
Fifteen minutes earlier Defour just saved his team, from conceding a goal as the 26-year-old denied a shot from Koo Jacheol in front of the goal-line. The goal-line technology review showed the ball did not pass the line.
Belgium had already sealed their berth in the knockout stage before the match and fielded in a series of reserve players including Manchester United promising star Adnan Januzaj who only chose to play for Belgium in April.
The South Koreans, however, need to beat Belgium to keep their last 16 hope alive. They made two changes in their starting line- up, keeping their star striker Park Chuyoung and first-choice goalkeeper Jung Sungryeong on bench.
Neither team managed to break the deadlock in the first half. The Belgians' best chance came in the 24th minute when attacking midfielder Dries Mertens from Italian side Napoli caught a loose ball inside the box. But his short-range shot flew high off the target.
"In the dressing room I told the players we were going back to the defence. We closed the inside and the midfield and left the flanks open. We knew we were able to benefit from the structure," Wilmots said.
"We had patience in the second half, not rushing forward too quickly. And with the speed of Divock Origi we knew can make it different."
After the break the South Koreans tried to converted their advantage in number into a real advantage in the score line. Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Son Heungmin's cross deep in the right hit the crossbar 12 minutes into the second half.
Short-handed as the Belgians were, they kept threatening their opponents with fast breaks.
In the 73rd minute, second half substitute Nacer Chadli of Belgium broke the defence in the left flank and danced into the area before his right-foot curling shot was deflected by defender Hong Jeongho.
A dogged South Korea team also had chances to level the score in the last ten minutes of the game. But an in-form keeper Thibaut Courtois, who was on loan in Atletico Madrid and claimed the title of Spanish La Liga, proved to be too strong for the Koreans.
"Our players gave their all but I think it was my failure as a coach that course the results," said Hong Myungbo, coach of South Korea. "I think our players did their best in the whole process."
"During the first half I think we played quite well. There were chances where we could had a goal in counter attacks. The red card made the situation changed. We became more aggressive. But we concentrated too much in the center."
The lose means South Korea were eliminated with only one point from three matches. Algeria joined Belgium in the last 16 after they tied Russia 1-1 in the other final round match in Curitiba. The Algerians collected four points to finish second in the group.
SAO PAULO, June 26 (Xinhua)