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.