At a World Cup where the favourites are either stuttering or have already been sent home, after their stunning 3-2 come from behind victory over Japan on Monday night brilliant Belgium could feasibly become the ninth nation to lift the Jules Rimet trophy.
Roberto Martinez’s men are poised to strike following the shock exit of 2014 and four-time champions Germany. Two-time winners Argentina were just as woeful and sent flying by a French side packed with flair, while 2010 champions Spain may well have passed Russia to death in their last 16 tie, but for all their tiki-taka technicians, they failed to pass through to the last eight.
Behemoths Brazil are still there of course but are yet to truly take off, while European champions Portugal simply didn’t appear able to operate without Cristiano Ronaldo on song, and couldn’t reach the towering heights of two summers ago.
Speaking of two summers ago, the European Championships was perhaps Belgian football’s lowest ebb – certainly in recent history.
A ‘Golden Generation’ of ridiculously embarrassing riches was expected to prove their worth and discover treasure in France.
Instead, Marc Wilmots’ men now serve as a mere footnote in Welsh football’s most glorious day.
Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Co dumped out after a 3-1 quarter-final defeat in which Wales’ goalscorers read Ashley Williams, Hal Robson-Kanu and Sam Vokes. A trio that while memorable to Welsh fans, doesn’t quite possess the same magic.
Fast forward two years though. Wilmots has gone and Belgium now truly believes their team is on the cusp of something special.
A brilliant attacking midfielder during his playing days, who made 70 appearances and scored 28 goals for the Red Devils, yet Wilmots found it devilishly difficult to take a fiendishly talented crop of players to the elite level, to find them a seat at international football’s top table.
He oversaw a disastrous failure. A player renowned for his creativity should definitely have been able to do more with the nation’s golden generation. Yet his leadership was leaden and he just weighed Belgium down.
But with Martinez at the helm, the squad has been untethered. And ambition is skyrocketing.
Since being torched by the Dragons almost exactly two years ago, Belgium’s turnaround has been stark.
One defeat in 24 games, and that came in Martinez’s first match in charge, against his native Spain.
Of the ensuing 23, only five have failed to end in victory. Twelve have produced clean sheets and they have won their last six in a row.
And they’re doing it on the big stage too. Three wins in the group stage in Russia, top scorers during that phase with nine. Lukaku is firing, with Hazard and De Bruyne combining devastatingly to supply the ammunition.
Dries Mertens joked this week of wanting to score the goals that not only help carry Belgium to World Cup success, but help his friends back home win television sets.
Electronics company Krefel is offering Belgian customers a full refund on a newly-bought TV if Martinez‘s men score 16 goals in Russia.
Belgium have certainly been one of the biggest stars on screen thus far, and now have a box seat having reached the last eight after their thrilling last-kick win over Japan.
OK, so in the midst of that 24-match streak they failed to come up against stern opposition. They earned 0-0 and 3-3 draws in pre-World Cup friendlies with Portugal and Mexico, while an aggregate thrashing of 15-1 was dished out to Gibraltar, as well as an 8-1 pasting of Estonia during qualifying, while they still look suspect defensively.
But if they’re breathtaking attack is able to continue blowing teams away, will Belgian fans care too much if there are a few more 5-2 scorelines like the one registered against Tunisia or even 3-2 against the desperately unlucky Japanese? Although the latter would have been very hard to watch at times.
Under Martinez, exiled from England after a difficult tenure at Everton, the Red Devils are becoming the angels of the World Cup.
Of course, the proof is on the pitch. And England, who were tiptoed past in the final group game, would prove much tougher opposition should their paths meet again.
The Three Lions also know all about golden generations who came and went without a payoff. Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, Alan Shearer and the like all contributed to England’s failure to reach a World Cup semi-final that stretches back to Italia 90 – 28 years.
So although Belgium have entertained so far, there is an end game.
They find themselves on the tougher side of the draw, with Brazil then either France or Uruguay barriers between them and the final. They hardly cut the Samurai Blue to ribbons and, any way you slice it, Belgium still have it all to do.
But after being burned by the Dragons in Lille two years ago, the Red Devils have recovered to find their way under Martinez and are looking red-hot.
With an explosive attack finally firing, three more wins separate the Devils from destiny.
After a disappointing start to the World Cup, Willian produced a trademark display full of vim and trickery to lead Brazil into the quarterfinals.
He proved too much to handle for the Mexico defence as his passing, dribbling, and pace helped Brazil to a 2-0 win.
Here’s an in-depth look at his performance.
Goals – 0
Shots – 2
Shots on target – 2
Assists – 1
Dribbles – 7
Willian hadn’t moved the needle in Brazil’s first three games at the World Cup, with his lack of impact so telling at one point that he was taken off at halftime in their second group stage clash. But on Monday, the Chelsea man delivered his best performance of the tournament. He tormented Mexico’s defence with his running and dribbling.
Dribbling – Willian is renowned for his dribbling ability, and it was on full display here against Mexico. He completed seven dribbles in the game, none more important than the ones he pulled off for Brazil’s opener.
Passing – The Brazilian’s passing was as incisive as his runs, as he constantly found his teammates in good positions to attack and finished the game with three key passes.
For someone who possesses such a thunderous shot, it was strange to see Willian not let loose more often. Some credit must go to Mexico’s defence, as, no doubt forewarned of his penchant for long-range strikes, they rarely gave him the space to unleash a shot.
It took four games, but Willian finally arrived at the World Cup. This was a superlative display from the Chelsea man, as he kept the Mexico defence on its toes throughout, and had the beating of them more often than not. He set up Brazil’s opener with a trademark run – something his side had been missing so far in the tournament.
RATING – 9/10
Carlos Vela’s best performance at this World Cup wasn’t enough to keep Mexico’s hopes alive, as they lost to Brazil 2-0 in their Round of 16 clash.
The LAFC man was a constant menace in attack for El Tri, but he and his teammates fell just short of producing a spectacular upset.
Here’s a closer look at Vela’s performance.
Goals – 0
Assists – 0
Shots – 2
Shots on target – 1
Key Passes – 4
Dribbles – 3
Vela tried hard to make an impact here and was Mexico’s best attacking presence on the day, even if that’s not saying much. He had a lively duel with Brazil right-back Fagner – who should be pleased with his efforts – and was the Mexico player who provided the most creative thrust. He’s entitled to feel disappointed in his teammates after this game.
Dribbling – Vela’s dribbling ability is part of what makes him such a thrilling player, and it was on show against Brazil. He was never afraid to take on his man, with good reason.
Passing – Only Neymar had more key passes than Vela on Monday, as the Mexico star kept looking to find his teammates in dangerous positions. On a better day, those passes would have led to something more substantial.
For someone with Vela’s left foot to have only two shots – just one on target – all game is inexplicable, especially for a player who can sometimes be too trigger-happy with his shooting. When nothing else was working, it’s strange that Vela didn’t try testing Alisson in the Brazil goal more often. A trademark chip or two may have been just what Mexico needed.
Vela hadn’t quite burst into life at this World Cup, and it’s a shame that as soon as he did, he and his teammates ended up booking their flights home. This was the sort of display that reminded everyone why he was once thought of so highly at Arsenal. Had his teammates matched his level, Mexico could have put up more of a fight.
RATING – 7/10