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
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
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
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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