Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard must raise Belgium into serious World Cup contenders

Alex Rea 1/07/2018
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Belgium have one eye on a possible quarter-final showdown with Brazil as they face Japan in a last-16 clash on Monday.

Roberto Martinez’s side have emerged as contenders at this World Cup with their ‘Golden Generation’ of precocious talent tipped to mount a deep run into the knockout rounds.

The Belgians topped Group G after defeating England 1-0 in their last outing on the back of straightforward wins over Panama and Tunisia.

They were the top scorers from the first phase with nine goals, Romelu Lukaku scoring four of them and the Manchester United forward is expected to return after missing the England win with an ankle knock.

However, Martinez will no doubt want to guard against complacency when they take on an unfancied Japan after being eliminated by Wales in their Euro 2016 quarter-final.

With that in mind, we examine some of the key talking points ahead of the last-16 contest.

JAPAN’S DREAM IN COLOUR

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Few other nations emphasise the auspiciousness of colours quite in the way Japanese culture does but during this World Cup, their tradition has paid dividends.

Indeed, red and yellow are viewed as favorable and the Samurai Blue owe their progression through to the last-16 because of those two colours.

First, there was the early dismissal for Colombia’s key midfielder Carlos Sanchez, which gifted boss Akira Nishino a perfect platform to prosper as his side eventually overran the South Americans in a 2-1 triumph.

Then, despite losing to an already eliminated Poland in their final clash, they progressed from Group H because of fewer yellow cards after equalling Senegal in points and goal difference.

Now, this might be pulling a thread and hoping for the best here but Japan really do require all the assistance they can garner because they’re comfortably the weakest side left in the tournament.

But Nishino and his men can draw strength from tradition once again because Japan take on Belgium, aka the Red Devils, and it will be hosted at the Rostov Arena, home to FC Rostov who’s club colours are blue – Japan’s most prominent lucky colour.

We don’t want to ground our analysis purely on superstition but if Japan do shockingly make it through to the quarter-finals, colours may well have played a part.

BELGIUM’S TIME TO RISE

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So far, so good for Belgium. Despite the criticism of Martinez’s tactical deficiencies going into the tournament – at the back not the front – Belgium have emerged from Group G intact and looking good in attack.

With the draw opening up slightly after the eliminations of defending champions Germany and now Argentina and Portugal, the Belgians won’t fear Brazil or Mexico in the quarter-finals while either Uruguay or France is a winnable fixture in the semis.

The golden generation is yet to come close to adding trophy shine to their top billing but with a squad of such rich talent all in their mid and late 20s, now is the time for the Red Devils to come of age.

And it will be a case of pick your demon for Japan. Kevin De Bruyne is their sorcerer, Eden Hazard a buzzing hellhound while ahead of those two Lukaku has been in monstrous goalscoring form.

There were worrying signs against both Tunisia and Panama that they can be exploited with the gaps behind their advancing wing-backs but Japan are unlikely to possess the type of weapons to hurt them there.

Even if they did, Thibaut Courtois is one of the best goalkeepers in world football and hasn’t been plagued by the type of mistakes which have blighted his Premier League rival David De Gea in Russia.

Martinez’s men are well balanced and Japan provide them with an opportunity to lay down a knock out marker.

LUKAKU FITNESS CONCERNS

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Lukaku suffered what Martinez described as “a really difficult knock” in the second group game win over Tunisia which forced the striker to miss training and then the England clash last week.

The Catalan boss moved to ally fears over the 25-year-old’s fitness ahead of their last-16 fixture but there will be concern regardless.

“Lukaku is fully fit, he trained and has no problems. He’ll be available, 100 per cent,” Martinez said in the pre-match build-up.

And Martinez needs Lukaku fit and firing because understudy Michy Batshuayi hardly inspires confidence when he’s slamming the ball into his own face.

With 23 goals in his last 20 Belgium games, Lukaku is in fine fettle, prospering with the playmakers behind him and tearing through sides head on rather than with his back to goal as was the case with United last season.

He’s plundered four goals in Russia and is chasing the golden boot and that added incentive can only be to his side’s benefit.

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Watch: Fit-again star Dele Alli insists England aren't afraid of anyone ahead of Colombia clash

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Midfielder Dele Alli has battled back from a thigh injury.

Dele Alli is ready to strut his stuff against Colombia, with the fit-again midfielder warning that England are “not scared of anyone” at this World Cup.

Qualification for the last-16 was sealed with a game to spare after the Three Lions followed up their last-gasp win against Tunisia with a ruthless display in the shellacking of Panama.

Gareth Southgate’s second string lost to Belgium’s back-ups on Thursday, but confidence is still coursing through the squad ahead of Tuesday’s tough-looking clash against Colombia in Moscow.

“The World Cup is the highest level,” England attacking midfielder Alli said.

“The best teams around the world, the players playing against each other.

“As a team we’re not scared of anyone.

“Whatever team you put in front of us we’re not going to hide, we’ll go out there be confident in ourselves, play the way we want to play and hopefully win the game.

“Of course, like I said before, we’ve come here with the mentality we want to win it and we’re going to win it.

“At the same time we can’t get carried away. We’ve been playing very well, there has been a lot of positives but at the same time there are still things to work on and we know that as players.

“For us we have to focus on the next game, we can’t think about how well we’ve played in the last game or how good we are doing.

“We have to be positive, but we can’t get carried away and let our feet get off the floor.

“We have to perform well and we’re confident that we can beat anyone.”

While England’s players believe they can lift the trophy, there appears little chance of them looking too far ahead as their last taste of knockout football ended with a humiliating loss to Iceland.

Pressure got the better of them at Euro 2016, but Southgate has helped shape the mentality of a group facing what the manager calls England’s biggest match in a decade.

“Every player is different,” Alli said of coping with pressure. “Every player handles different situations in different ways.

“Personally, the only pressure is the pressure I put on myself. I want to go out there and do as well as I can if I’m selected. Be part of the starting 11 and help the team as much as a I can, play as well as I can.”

Alli worked himself into the team for England’s Group G opener against Tunisia, only to pick up a thigh strain that kept him out of the final two matches.

The attacking midfielder played 80 minutes in Volgograd having looked set to come off in the first half, yet he does not have any regrets about staying on.

“No, I’m glad he kept me on,” Alli said.

“I had a similar injury when we played Real Madrid and scored two so if I had scored maybe people would think differently.

“I felt like I could run it off and I told the manager and the physios I was OK.”

Alli now feels fully fit ahead of facing Colombia on Tuesday, when he would have no problem taking a spot-kick if it goes all the way.

England have a dreadful penalty shootout record but Southgate, who missed the key penalty in Euro 96, has helped change things.

“Every situation you have to control it, you have to own it,” Alli added. “I want to go help the team.

“I’m confident in myself and what’s meant to be will be.

“We’ve got to try to work hard on the penalties and we have been, we’re trying to own the situation, not let it own us. It’s changed the whole mindset for us.”

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James Rodriguez injury update as Colombia yet to confirm whether he will face England

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Tears: James Rodriguez limped off against Senegal.

Colombia have yet to make a decision on James Rodriguez’s availability for their last-16 World Cup clash against England on Tuesday.

Scan results revealed the Bayern Munich star suffered “minor bruising” in his calf muscle after limping out of the 1-0 win over Senegal in the first-half.

It now remains to be seen whether the country’s talisman will be fit to take on the Three Lions at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow (22:00 kick-off UAE time).

Chief playmaker Rodriguez was one of the stars of the last World Cup in Brazil and looked to be approaching his best form once again during the group stages this time round.

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