LONDON - Russia started their World Cup countdown with a 1-0 win over Slovakia while Australia were held to a 1-1 draw by South Africa as the finalists began their preparations in earnest on Monday with the start of the tournament just 17 days away. Belgium, tipped by many to make a big impression in Brazil, were also in action, crushing Luxembourg 5-1.
Fabio Capello picked a strong team for their win over Slovakia in St Petersburg with Zenit St Petersburg forward Alexander Kerzhakov heading the only goal eight minutes from time. Alexander Kokorin thought he had put Russia in front after latching on to a glorious through ball by Sergei Ignashevich before lifting the ball over goalkeeper Jan Mucha but English referee Mark Clattenburg ruled it out for offside.
Australia showed few signs that they might buck their underdog status at the World Cup as they struggled to a tepid 1-1 draw against an under-strength South Africa in Sydney. More than 50,000 turned out at the Olympic Stadium to bid farewell to the Socceroos before they depart for the finals but the home side laboured to break down Bafana Bafana.
Both the goals came inside a minute early in the first half with Ayanda Patosi's 13th-minute effort for South Africa cancelled out by Australia's stand-in captain and leading international goalscorer Tim Cahill. Australia face world champions Spain, 2010 runners-up the Netherlands and Chile in Brazil.
Belgium got back to winning ways after a four-match sequence without a victory as Romelu Lukaku hit a hat-trick to secure a 5-1 friendly win over Luxembourg. Three weeks before their World Cup opener, Belgium showed off the neat passing that has prompted many to tip them to do well in Brazil and also blooded three debutants, including 19-year-old Manchester United winger Adnan Januzaj. Substitute Nacer Chadli scored Belgium's fourth while Kevin De Bruyne converted a 91st minute penalty. Pierre Webo and Eric Maxim Choup-Moting scored as Cameroon beat Macedonia 2-0 in Austria while fellow qualifiers Iran were held to a 0-0 draw by Montenegro.
Japan struggle to win against Cyprus
Defender Atsuto Uchida spared Japan's blushes with a 43rd-minute winner as the Asian champions beat Cyprus 1-0 in their final home World Cup warm-up on Tuesday. Japan, who looked heavy-legged after a punishing training camp last week, face Ivory Coast in their opening game at the World Cup in Brazil on June 14. Right-back Uchida broke the deadlock in Saitama when he stabbed home the loose ball after Shinji Kagawa's close-range effort had been blocked, registering only his second goal in 66 internationals.
"It was nice to score coming back from injury," said Uchida, who celebrated his strike by sprinting to the touchline to hug Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni. "I didn't know if I would be fit in time," added Uchida, returning from a lengthy spell out with a thigh problem. "I really wanted to get on the scoresheet tonight."
With Cyprus defending resolutely, a clever step-over from Kagawa brought the crowd of 58,000 to their feet, only for Keisuke Honda to waste Japan's only other chance of a scrappy first half.
Kagawa and captain Makoto Hasebe, himself working his way back to fitness after a knee problem, went close as Japan showed more urgency after the break.
But ultimately the home side lacked the cutting edge Zaccheroni had demanded before the match.
"We weren't as sharp as we can be but the players kept probing," said the Italian, who has stubbornly refused to make any World Cup predictions. "I'm not the sort of person to make promises about results. But I do demand the players put in the effort required to get results. We will be 100 percent for June 14."
Japan, who also play Greece and Colombia in Group C, have further friendlies against Costa Rica on June 2 and Zambia on June 6 in Tampa before flying to Brazil. The 'Blue Samurai' reached the last 16 at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Japan stormed through Asian qualifying to secure a fifth successive World Cup appearance, finishing four points clear of Australia at the top of their final-round group.