Belgium face Japan on Sunday with a spot in the World Cup quarter-finals on the line (22:00 UAE kick-off time).
For Belgium, it is a chance to deliver on the immense promise of arguably their most talented generation of footballers, while Japan will be hoping to cause an upset.
Here, we look at the key talking points before their contest at the Rostov Arena.
TIME FOR BELGIUM TO SHOW THEIR CLASS
Belgium have been here before, only to have flattered to deceive. They lost in the last eight at Euro 2016 when a run to the final could have been on the cards, and at the last World Cup a younger version of this side were considered one of the dark horses.
In that case it was Lionel Messi‘s Argentina knocked them out, and there was no shame in losing to eventual finalists and a side that nearly became champions. But they haven’t truly established themselves as a burgeoning power since then, with their loss to Wales at the Euros becoming emblematic of this generation’s Belgium: a supremely talented squad that can’t be relied upon when it counts.
So far, this year’s vintage is doing its best to put that image to bed, with Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku leading a side that now has veteran poise and a steely ruthlessness along with its considerable talent. But they need a statement result.
At this stage in the last World Cup, Belgium laboured to a dramatic extra-time win over the United States. Japan are no pushovers but Belgium need to avoid that sort of performance, and stamp their authority on this fixture. They’re not going to be remembered for beating England, Panama, and Tunisia.
JAPAN NEED TO WIN OVER NEUTRALS
The way Japan qualified – playing out a farcical ending as they lost 1-0 to Poland in their final group game – left a sour taste in the mouth of many fans. After beating Colombia in their opening pool fixture and then contesting an exciting 2-2 draw with Senegal, Japan had won over many of the neutrals, but they lost that credit with the way they played against Poland. Running out the final ten minutes of the game by playing the ball between themselves at the back led to boos from the crowd and widespread condemnation from pundits and fans all over.
At the end of the day, however, this is a results business. What Japan did got them to the round of 16, as the sole representative from Asia. Given that no African team qualified either, it means they are still in position to reclaim their status as lovable underdogs.
So Sunday’s game against Belgium is a chance for them to restore some credit. If they can put in the sort of determined, gritty, professional display that got them through their first two games, and start to hint at an upset of one of the more fancied sides, the fans will love them again.
LUKAKU’S CHANCE TO JOIN THE GREATS
Since Gerd Muller scored 10 goals at the 1974 World Cup for West Germany, five or six goals have usually been enough to claim the top scorer’s award at the tournament – with a couple of notable exceptions, including Ronaldo’s eight in 2002. This is looking like another year where the tally might go up, with Harry Kane the leader on five goals already.
Lukaku is one behind and he’ll relish the chance to add to that tally against Japan’s defence, which has shown susceptibility on set pieces and crosses. The competition with Kane is set to push the Golden Boot goal-marker higher than previous years.
If Belgium are to win this game, and then stand a chance in a potential quarter-final against Brazil, it’ll be because of goals from the Manchester United forward, who has previously faced criticism for not delivering in big games. To Lukaku’s credit, he silenced a lot of that talk last season and should be setting his sights on getting the goals to help his country go as far as they can in the World Cup.
Muller’s 10 or Just Fontaine’s single-tournament record of 13 in 1982 may be unattainable, but Ronaldo’s mark from 2002 is a realistic target. And how many strikers can say they scored as many goals as Ronaldo at a single World Cup?
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