World Cup: Slovenia vs. Algeria: Slovenia's victory puts it atop Group C ahead of U.S. and England
Hey England and America, look who's on top of your World Cup group. Little Slovenia!
Robert Koren scored a late goal Sunday to give Slovenia a 1-0 win over 10-man Algeria in the teams' tournament opener, putting the World Cup's smallest nation — population 2 million, about the size of Houston — ahead of the United States and England in Group C.
The Slovenian captain struck a long-range shot that Algeria goalkeeper Fawzi Chaouchi misjudged and allowed to bounce into the net after deflecting off his arm in the 79th minute at Polokwane, South Africa.
"I was just lucky to see it go in like that," Koren said.
Algerian Coach Rabah Saadane said the new World Cup ball was a challenge for goalkeepers.
"Everyone saw what happened with the ball, and what happened yesterday with England's goalkeeper," Saadane said. "You have to adjust to the flight of the ball."
Algeria substitute Abdelkader Ghezzal was ejected seven minutes earlier, picking up a second yellow card for handling the ball inside the Slovenian penalty area.
It was the first World Cup victory for Slovenia. The Balkan country lost all three of its group matches in the 2002 tournament.
"It was a mental victory," said Slovenian Coach Matjaz Kek. "We wanted to win so much, so it's great for our confidence to get that win."
Both sides knew they were heading into a match in which a loss would be costly, with England and the United States — both ranked higher — left on the schedule. The Group C favorites tied 1-1 on Saturday after a blunder by England goalkeeper Robert Green allowed Clint Dempsey's bouncing shot to trickle into the net.
Algeria twice came close to scoring in the first half, when Nadir Belhadj's 25-yard free kick forced Slovenia goalkeeper Samir Handanovic to stretch and push the ball over the crossbar, and when defender Rafik Halliche headed the ball just wide.
Saadane said Chaouchi apologized to the team for failing to track Koren's shot. But the coach refused to criticize the goalkeeper.
"We must recover and prepare for an even more difficult match against England, which is the best of the group," Saadane said. "It's going to be very difficult now. We had a great opportunity today and we missed it."
The players seemed nervous in the first half, frequently losing possession with inaccurate passes and crosses.
Slovenia's only scoring chance before the break was Valter Birsa's long-range attempt in the 43rd minute, tipped over the bar with a spectacular right-hand save by Chaouchi.
The match could have taken a different turn two minutes before Koren's winner when Algeria's Karim Ziani caught defender Marko Suler off-guard and pushed toward the Slovenian goal, but was cut off by Handanovic.
There was some commotion in the stands during the break when former France great Zinedine Zidane, who is of Algerian descent, was forced to climb to a higher section to get away from autograph-seeking fans who were pushed back briskly by security guards.
Algeria beat North African rival Egypt in a tense playoff to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Slovenia reached its second World Cup with an upset playoff victory over Russia.
Slovenia faces the U.S. next, while Algeria travels to Cape Town to take on England.
The game at the newly built Peter Mokaba Stadium was the first World Cup match played on a surface partly consisting of artificial grass. Similar turf is being used at some major stadiums in Europe.
"I do not agree with this turf," Kek said. "It's no excuse, it's the same for Algeria as well. But it is a different game on this surface."
Photo: Algeria goalkeeper Fawzi Chaouchi can't stop the ball from bouncing into the goal after a shot by Slovenia's Robert Koren deflected off his arm. Credit: Valery Hache / AFP / Getty Images