POLOKWANE, June 13 – Captain Robert Koren snatched the soft late goal that gave Slovenia a 1-0 victory over 10-man Algeria on Sunday and top place in Group C of the World Cup.Goalkeeper Faouzi Chaouchi should have saved a curling shot from outside the penalty area on 79 minutes, but let it slip into the corner of the net soon after striker Abdelkader Ghezzal was sent off.
It was the first World Cup win for the East Europeans after three losses in their only previous appearance eight years ago and will offer hope ahead of tougher assignments against the United States and England.
Among the crowd at the 46,000-seat Peter Mokaba Stadium in this northern city was former superstar Zinedine Zidane, born in Marseille to Algerian parents and a World Cup winner with France 12 years ago.
Warm, clear conditions greeted the outsiders in a mini-league pundits believe will be dominated by 1966 champions England and the USA, who drew 1-1 in Rustenburg the previous night.
A free kick in front of goal and outside the penalty area offered the North Africans the first chance and goalkeeper Samir Handanovic did well to tip over a Nadir Belhadj shot.
Chaouchi and Portsmouth midfielder Belhadj were fortunate starters for the ‘Desert Foxes’ as bans stemming from 2010 African Nations Cup red cards were dropped only this week by the African Football Confederation.
The early exchanges had a heavy imprint of caution with ball retention the first priority for teams who reached the tournament at the expense of world top-20 ranked teams Russia and Egypt.
Spectators blowing plastic vuvuzela horns were creating a distinct South African atmosphere in a match featuring plenty of neat passing but a paucity of goalmouth action.
Aleksander Radosavljevic was first to be cautioned after fouling Belhadj on 35 minutes and Slovenia had a scare soon after as a Rafik Halliche header off a corner went wide.
Chaouchi came to the rescue as half-time approached, acrobatically tipping over a dipping Valter Birsa shot as Slovenia moved up a couple of gears and also forced a couple of corners.
Hassan Yebda, a starter at the expense of off-form captain Yazid Mansouri and sporting peroxide blond hair, was at the heart of an impressive early second-half Algerian move that ended with a shot straight at Handanovic.
With no sign of a goal the coaches introduced new strikers, Ghezzal replacing Rafik Djebbour and Zlatan Ljubijankic coming on for Zlatko Dedic, whose goal eliminated Russia.
Halfway through the half and the game remained goalless although Italy-based Ghezzal was making an impact, getting on the end of several crosses only to be let down by high headers.
But the Algerian substitute did the ‘Desert Foxes’ no favours by getting sent off 17 minutes from full-time for a second yellow card after deliberately handling a cross.