Belgium had to rely on a first international goal from 19-year-old striker Divock Origi to settle a tight and often dreary contest against Russia.
After having disappointed for much of this match at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard finally turned on the style to set up Lille striker Origi for a first-time finish two minutes from time.
Belgium’s win against former England manager Fabio Capello’s side means they have now qualified from Group H, but until the last 10 minutes this had been grim stuff against the hard-working Russians.
Hazard had looked out-of-sorts and Romelu Lukaku toothless, while Marouane Fellaini failed to make the impact he had in Belgium’s opening match against Algeria.
Capello, however, will now have real fears over whether he will be able to take his side into the knockout rounds.
Vincent Kompany made it clear before the game that his team were going to prioritise results over style and so it proved against a Russian side where all 23 squad members play in their home country – only three of Belgium’s do.
Russia could count themselves unfortunate after matching Belgium until the final minutes.
They had nearly drawn first blood. Zenit St Petersburg striker Victor Fayzulin fired in a low curling shot with his left foot, but Thibaut Courtois was able to get a strong arm to it and keep the match scoreless.
Kevin de Bruyne’s scorching run took him past three challenges and the former Chelsea midfielder laid the ball off perfectly for Dries Mertens, who tried to find Lukaku rather than shooting and Russian captain Vasily Berezutskiy came to the rescue.
Mertens then ran at the Russian defence himself twice in as many minutes, but on both occasions he sent his shot whistling a yard wide.
It was not all Belgium, however.
Maksim Kanunnikov cut in from the left and brought a decent save out of Courtois, before Mertens once again beat Dmitry Kombarov, this time via a nutmeg, but as before, Lukaku could not get on the end of this cross.
Thomas Vermaelen’s match ended after 31 minutes – he had clashed knees with Kompany in the warm-up and was replaced by Jan Vertonghen at left-back.
After being pinned back for a lengthy period, the Russians ended the first half on top.
Fayzulin volleyed over from a corner before Alexander Kokorin missed the best chance of the half, the Dinamo Moscow striker heading wide from the edge of the six-yard box after Denis Glushakov had picked him out beautifully.
The second half drifted ever further into the doldrums, with Russia having half chances when Sergei Ignashevich flicked a header over and substitute Andrey Eshchenko fired in a shot from the right that just missed the far post.
The introduction of Kevin Mirallas for Mertens appeared to change the course of the game.
The Everton midfielder rattled the post from a free-kick before Hazard’s incisive run promised another chance for Belgium, but his strike was deflected over the bar.
Finally there was another bit of Hazard magic, weaving his way down the right for substitute Origi – making only his fourth appearance – to slam home first time.
Hazard admitted Belgium did not play well, but insisted that the result was all-important to secure qualification for the knockout rounds of the World Cup.
The Chelsea midfielder, who came alive during the final 10 minutes and threatened several times before the goal, said: “It was a difficult match but we are very happy with the result and the victory means we have already qualified and still have one match to go in the group.
“We will now aim for three wins in this group campaign.
“We didn’t play a very good match, but the last 10 minutes were better and maybe the Russian defence got tired and we got more space for the substitutes, who were fresh, to exploit.
“I felt fit though – I’m in good shape and as I often make the difference towards the end of the match it shows I am still fresh.”
Belgium’s coach Marc Wilmots said it was “a highly tactical game” and that he might rest players for the third game against South Korea if they were tired or on yellow cards.
He said: “We were fresher, we were better and that made the difference – maybe due to our very good fitness preparations.
“We want to be number one in the group but if there are yellow cards or for reasons of freshness, I may make a decision.”