Belgium take on Japan on Monday in an intriguing Round of 16 tie at the World Cup.
The star-studded Belgium side have plenty of players who will be looking to lead their side into the quarterfinals, while Japan’s leading lights will want to pull off an upset that could be the biggest result of their careers.
Here’s a closer look at the key battles which will decide this game.
Eden Hazard vs Shinji Kagawa
It’s somewhat surprising to see the player who’s been so grumpy at Chelsea cut such a smooth figure as Belgium captain. He’s a visible leader of this side, most notably with how he demands more out of Romelu Lukaku.
It helps when you have his quality. Hazard looks dangerous every time he gets on the ball at the World Cup. Japan will have their hands full.
A few years ago, when Hazard and Shinji Kagawa moved to the Premier League in the same summer. it would have been feasible to ask who was better. The trajectories of their careers since then render that question moot, but the Japan playmaker excels at his craft.
Japan’s hopes of an upset rest on Kagawa’s shoulders
Romelu Lukaku vs Yuyo Osaka
The form Lukaku has been in for his country is unreal. He’s scored 16 goals in his last 11 internationals, including four in two games at the World Cup. Along with Harry Kane he’s now the frontrunner for the Golden Boot. Japan’s defence has been somewhat shaky at this tournament, and Belgium’s lead striker will be hoping to feast upon it.
Yuyo Osaka isn’t in quite the same form, but he’s been crucial to Japan’s progress in Russia. His goal gave them a vital three points against Colombia, and he was a handful for the Senegal defence in a 2-2 draw. Belgium’s defence hasn’t quite been tested at this tournament, and Osaka might be able to take advantage of that.
Thomas Meunier vs Yuto Nagatomo
Thomas Meunier’s form at wingback for Belgium has been a vital part of their success at the tournament so far. He was one of the best players at his position in the group stage, and he adds another dimension to the Red Devils’ attack. Only Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne have more key passes for Belgium at the World Cup.
Like Meunier, Nagatomo has emerged as one of the most reliable performers for his side. His crossing ability from left-back is a key aspect of Japan’s attack. More importantly, he provides a collected, calm presence for his side, which could be crucial in a crunch game like this, especially given the calibre of the opposition.
As the dust settles on Spain’s shambolic World Cup exit, many individuals should accept their share of responsibility for the team’s failings. But perhaps the biggest slice of blame should be apportioned to a man who wasn’t even in Russia: Florentino Perez.
After all, the Real Madrid president was the one who plunged the national team into chaos by appointing Spain boss Julen Lopetegui as his club’s new coach just two days before the tournament started.
That bombshell resulted in the Spanish FA axing Lopetegui and appointing the grossly inexperienced Fernando Hierro in his place on a temporary basis. Although we will never know whether things would have transpired differently with Lopetegui still in place, there seemed to be a clear lack of leadership and direction as Spain stumbled through their last sixteen exit against Russia.
Perez was the man who made that happen. He is, of course, perfectly entitled to approach and negotiate with whoever he wants. But the manner in which it was conducted – behind the back of the Spanish FA – and then announced – with five minutes warning to Lopetegui’s then-employers – was unnecessarily provocative.
Why was Perez not open with the Spanish FA? Why did he not tell them that he wanted the coach, that the coach wanted to come, so they could agree an amicable plan of action?
We can only speculate, but the options are that either Perez couldn’t care less about the fate of his national team and was only looking after Real Madrid’s interests, or that – more sinisterly – he was actively attempting to undermine the Spanish FA in a political power struggle with that organisation’s newly appointed president Jose Luis Rubiales.
Is this unfair on Perez? After all, it takes two to tango and the Real Madrid president was only one of three main characters in the Lopetegui departure saga.
Another one those, of course, was Lopetegui himself, who can be criticised for allowing Madrid to announce his appointment at such an inopportune time. Why did he not insist to Perez that the news be kept under wraps until after the tournament, or at least properly discussed with his current employers first?
But he probably didn’t have much say in the matter. Real Madrid is an enormously powerful institution and Perez an extremely strong willed man. If you’re accepting a lucrative offer of employment from that club, it’s done on their terms or no terms at all. Lopetegui would hardly want to put himself in an awkward position with his new president before he had even started.
When you sack the coach Julen Lopetegui the day before the World Cup starts you take a huge gamble. You have to use a man who’s never managed a team before let alone at the highest level. Not sure the Spanish federation did the right thing there.#SpainOut— Brighty (@Mark__Bright) July 1, 2018
And then there’s Rubiales, who has been accused of overreacting by firing Lopetegui rather than allowing him to remain in charge until the end of the tournament.
There’s a fair amount of sense in that argument, and to a great extent it can be said that Rubiales was cutting off his nose to spite his face by taking such a drastic step.
However, the Spanish FA chief clearly feels that he was given no choice considering the clandestine manner of the negotiations, and believes he was defending the integrity and credibility of his organisation – and by extension Spanish football as a whole – by immediately removing Lopetegui in the same way that any business executive would be promptly placed on ‘gardening leave’ in similar circumstances.
Of course, the mess of Lopetegui’s departure didn’t have to prove fatal and other factors were involved in Spain’s demise. A more experienced boss than Hierro, for starters, would have acted more decisively and exerted a greater sense of leadership when the team needed it against Russia.
And there were inexplicable individual mistakes from players, with David De Gea gifting a goal to Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos doing likewise against Morocco and then Gerard Pique conceding a needless and eventually crucial penalty against Russia.
But Hierro, although he didn’t do a great job, can’t really be criticised too much after being placed in an impossible position against his will with absolutely no period of notice, and the careless errors on the pitch can surely be traced back to the uncertainty generated by the sudden departure of the coach.
So although Rubiales and Lopetegui should be questioned, and Hierro and his players were also culpable, the main protagonist in the love triangle which destabilised the team on the eve of the tournament was Perez.
And when next season unfolds it will be interesting to see whether he and his club are subjected to increased levels of hostility on their travels around the country. Real Madrid might have succeeded in gaining a new manager, but they have also generated a lot of ill feeling.
Jose Pekerman’s team were inspired by James Rodriguez before being eliminated by the hosts, Brazil, in 2014.
The Bayern Munich forward, on loan from Real Madrid, expects to feature at some stage at Spartak Stadium in the last 16 clash with the Three Lions on Tuesday, after scans on the leg injury sustained against Senegal revealed he had not suffered a muscle tear.
And Ospina is confident England can be beaten to force passage into the last eight.
“We are a better team than four years ago,” the Arsenal goalkeeper said.
“We are together, more experienced and a stronger squad of players than we were in Brazil. We have experience and good quality. Our players play in the best clubs, the best leagues, and are used to playing in matches of this size, so nothing will frighten us.
“England are a good team but we did not mind who it was we would face. We just know we will give everything for our country and take strength from the support. We always give everything for our country. It’s such an honour to play for Colombia.”
Los Cafeteros will be lifted by the backing of around 40,000 supporters in Moscow.
Around 30,000 Colombian fans have been in Russia and another 10,000 are apparently heading to Moscow for the country’s third appearance in the knockout stages of the competition.
They will heavily outnumber their English counterparts, and Ospina is counting on their support to energise Colombia.
“The support has been incredible,” Ospina said. “It’s been our inspiration. There are Colombians all over the world but the support here, in Russia, has meant everything to us.
“It shows the passion and belief that we have in our country. It’s just amazing how many people have come here to support us. It has felt like a home game in every game for us.
“They make more noise, have more colour and we always have more supporters than the rest. It shows how much football means to our country. It’s not pressure, it’s strength for us.”
The 29-year-old, capped 89 times, is to discuss his future at Arsenal after his tournament ends, having been linked again with a move to Fenerbahce in search of more regular football.
The Premier League club have bought Bernd Leno for £19m from Bayer Leverkusen and the Germany international will surely compete with Petr Cech to be first choice.