Belgium dumped Brazil out of the World Cup after a sensational first half performance in Kazan left the favourites with too much to do.
It was another thrilling night in a fabulously unpredictable World Cup, and Belgium will feel they fully deserved the victory despite Brazil’s determined second half fightback.
Let’s review three big talking points from the contest.
MARTINEZ DELIVERS MASTERCLASS
After habitually lining up his team in a 3-4-3 formation, Belgium boss Roberto Martinez surprised Brazil – and everyone else – by switching to a 4-3-3 shape on this occasion, moving Jan Vertonghen over to the left-back slot while Romelu Lukaku switched out to the right wing with Kevin De Bruyne as a false nine deep-lying striker.
However, there was also a great deal of flexibility with his team often reverting to a 3-4-3 when they came forward, as Thomas Meunier shuttled between the right-back and wing-back position and the front three enjoyed lots of freedom of movement.
The unusual plan worked to perfection, with the midfield duo of Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini helping to contain Brazil in the centre of the pitch while the back four did a brilliant job of dealing with any crosses that were thrown their way.
And the front three were magnificent, with Lukaku’s power, De Bruyne’s directness and Hazard’s trickery and pace causing all sorts of problems for Brazil as their movement and slick interplay dragged the opposition defence out of shape.
However, Martinez had to make changes late on as Brazil fought back in pursuit of a leveller, and his substitutions and a formation change to 5-3-2 helped shore things up, ensuring his team could finish what their coach’s boldness had started.
BRAZIL WIDE OPEN
Having said all that, Brazil also played a big part in their own downfall by producing a shockingly open defensive performance in the first half, with the marauding front three of Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku given all sorts of running room as the South American team’s midfield went missing in action.
First among the culpable parties was Fernandinho, who was drafted into the side to replace the suspended Casemiro but was a pale imitation of the Real Madrid man, failing to protect his back four by wandering out of position and getting caught too high up the pitch. Paulinho also had the kind of game his many detractors would expect, failing to offer much either with or without the ball and eventually being replaced.
Belgium’s second goal was the prime example of Brazil’s shortcomings, as Fernandinho allowed Lukaku to easily walk past him in a position where Casemiro would have made sure he took ball, man or both. Belgium were allowed to launch similar attacks far too often, and although Brazil gained a better shape in the second half – with Paulinho replaced by goalscorer Renato Augusto – by then the damage had already been done.
NEYMAR FLATTERS TO DECEIVE
After generating so much praise and criticism during his team’s first four games, Neymar was expected to be at the centre of the action once again – but this time the mercurially gifted winger couldn’t play a leading role.
He was strangely out of sorts in the first half, apparently struggling with an injury which briefly forced him off the field for treatment.
And although he became much more of a factor after the break, he was still well below his usual standards of skill and penetration. He nearly played the hero role by sending a curling strike towards goal in stoppage time, but Thibaut Courtois produced a magnificent flying save to leave Neymar still chasing his World Cup dream.
And maybe there will be wider repercussions, because one man who was surely watching Neymar’s frustrations and Hazard’s electrifying night with particular interest was Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, who could be in need of a new forward if a certain number seven leaves in the next few days…