Brazil and Belgium will meet in a mouth-watering World Cup quarter-final on Friday night, with some of the game’s finest attacking talent going head to head as Neymar and Philippe Coutinho square off against Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne.
Brazil have eased impressively through the tournament so far, but they will face their biggest test yet against a Belgian side buoyed by a spectacular comeback in the 3-2 victory over Japan in the last sixteen.
Here are three big storylines to look out for in this potentially classic showdown.
Belgium switch to back four?
Roberto Martinez has lined up his Belgium team in a 3-5-2 formation so far, employing Yannick Carrasco and Thomas Meunier as wing-backs in an attack-minded approach.
But employing that strategy against Brazil’s richly gifted front three would be a big risk, with Neymar in particular surely rubbing his hands at the prospect of taking on a defence lacking a full-back to track his runs inside from Brazil’s left flank.
So Martinez could well be tempted to revert to a back four, dropping Meunier into the right-back slot while Jan Vertonghen shifts across from the centre of defence to the left-back position with the task of stifling Willian.
That move could also allow Marouane Fellaini to enter the starting eleven to challenge’s Brazil’s central midfield with his power and aerial ability, and the variety of attacking options at Martinez’s disposal mean he could easily choose between either a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formation.
However, the three-man defence is Belgium’s stock shape and Martinez will be reluctant to abandon it, so he could retain that formation but order Meunier to play more defensively than normal in the hope of containing Neymar.
More rough stuff for Neymar?
On the subject of Neymar, it’s inevitable that the flamboyant winger will once again be at the centre of attention both on and off the pitch after a typically divisive performance in his team’s 2-0 victory over Mexico on Monday.
Neymar thrilled fans by scoring a brilliant opener and playing a key role in the second goal for Roberto Firmino – who is pushing hard to replace Gabriel Jesus in the starting line-up – but he also irritated by again displaying his propensity to ludicrously over-exaggerate some of the physical treatment he receives.
In Neymar’s defence, surely no other player in world football finds himself on the receiving end of so many crude challenges, with many opposition defenders and coaches obviously believing the best way to subdue his creative talents is to kick lumps out of him.
There will therefore be plenty of attention the extent of Belgium’s ferocity on Neymar, and on the match referee (not appointed at the time of writing) to see whether he will adopt a lenient or severe approach to the tough tackling the winger is sure to receive – and whether he will attempt to clamp down on Neymar’s theatrics.
Can Fernandinho subdue De Bruyne?
Brazil manager Tite will be forced into one significant change, with powerhouse midfielder Casemiro suspended after picking up his second caution during the victory over Mexico.
Casemiro’s defensive excellence has been a key factor in Brazil’s ability to concede only one goal in their opening four games, and his absence will almost certainly give Fernandinho a chance to come into the starting eleven for a head to head showdown with Manchester City clubmate Kevin De Bruyne.
Fernandinho is clearly an experienced and capable campaigner, but he does not possess the same physical ruggedness as Casemiro and could be a little rusty after only playing 64 minutes so far in the tournament – all from the bench.
De Bruyne, of course, is a potential match-winner for Belgium and his ability to carve out opportunities for his teammates with his outstanding dribbling and slide-rule passing could be a key to the outcome. Fernandinho’s priority will be to stop him, and it will be a fascinating duel.
The World Cup is entering its quarterfinal stage after a wild roller-coaster ride that has produced plenty of shocking moments during the first three weeks of the tournament.
Here are the top ten biggest shocks of the World Cup so far.
DE GEA GAFFE COSTS SPAIN
It took one game for a hole to be poked in that resume, as he spilled a tame shot from Ronaldo into the net during Spain’s 3-3 draw with Portugal.
MESSI’S PENALTY MISS
Speaking of holes being poked, this was not a kind tournament for Messi. It all started with a missed penalty against Iceland.
Despite Messi’s patchy record from 12 yards, few would have doubted him as he strode to the spot against Iceland, only for the Barcelona superstar to hit a tame penalty that was saved by Hannes Halldorsson.
MEXICO STUN CHAMPIONS
Germany’s World Cup went from bad to worse. This was the bad.
Perhaps the signs should have been there as the reigning champions laboured through a five-match winless run during friendlies after they’d already qualified, but nobody expected that they’d come up against Mexico and do anything other than win.
Hirving Lozano and company had other ideas.
CROATIA DOMINATE ARGENTINA
Messi’s penalty miss against Iceland was only the beginning of his misery.
His Argentina side struggling even with him in their line-up is a familiar story, but being outclassed like this is a rare experience. Croatia showed up and played Jorge Sampaoli’s side off the pitch in a 3-0 trouncing inspired by a superb performance from Luka Modric.
SHAQIRI, XHAKA MAKE STATEMENT, EARN WRATH
Normally, two players scoring goals in a come-from-behind win at the World Cup would be beyond reproach from their own fans. But Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka earned the wrath of the Swiss faithful despite leading their team to a 2-1 win.
The reason? Both Shaqiri and Xhaka were born to ethnic Albanian parents from Kosovo, a country born out of a long history of suppression by Yugoslavia, what is now Serbia – as fate would have it, the team on the receiving end of the Shaqiri and Xhaka-inspired comeback. So both players made the Albanian eagle with their arms during their goal celebrations. The Swiss fans – who have not been universally welcoming of players with mixed ethnic backgrounds – were not happy.
For Albanians and Kosovans, however, the celebrations were inspirational.
SOUTH KOREA SEND GERMANY PACKING
Germany had beaten Sweden to get their World Cup back on track – or so it seemed. Instead, this was when it went from bad to worse.
The champions huffed and puffed and all but blew the door down – except the door was a wall in front of the South Korea goal. And a combination of superb defending and goalkeeping and Germany’s own profligacy meant they couldn’t score. Then, the sucker punches came, as two injury-time goals gave the Koreans their most famous win – and sent Die Mannschaft home after a shocking early exit.
JAPAN QUALIFY IN FARCE
10 minutes left in Group H. Japan, losing 1-0 to Poland, were second in the table by the skin of their teeth. Senegal were losing by the same score to Colombia, and Japan went on to seal a qualification place from the group – on fair play. If the Samurai Blue conceded another goal, picked up two more yellow cards, or Senegal scored, they’d be out.
So, instead of pushing for an equaliser that would make their spot in the knockout stage secure, Japan decided the safest way to win was to not play at all. Their players passed the ball amongst themselves at the back, making sure their game would end exactly as it was – a 1-0 defeat, no more bookings – and hoping Senegal’s would too.
That’s exactly what happened. But the farcical end left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.
MESSI, RONALDO GO HOME TOGETHER
If anyone had asked World Cup organisers what a dream scenario for this tournament would have been, either Messi or Ronaldo lifting the trophy would have been near the top of the list. So the events of June 30 were a near nightmare. Messi’s Argentina lost to France, and hours later, Uruguay dumped out Ronaldo and Portugal. The two legends were going home on the same day.
This summer was looked at as a chance for one of the two to strike a definitive blow in the “greatest of all time” debate. Instead, all that’s really happened is that they’ve been pulled back to the pack by previous legends who have football’s biggest trophy on their resume.
HOSTS GIVE SPAIN COLD SHOULDER
Even accounting for Russia’s home advantage, they weren’t expected to reach the knockouts this summer. Not when they were the lowest-ranked side at the tournament when it began.
But if qualifying from their group was defying expectations, that was nothing compared to what happened next. Going up against Spain, the hosts eschewed the exciting, goal-laden football that had captured the hearts of their home fans but did them one better, stifling the Spaniards and then knocking them out in a dramatic penalty shootout.
ENGLAND BURY PENALTY GHOSTS
What could be more shocking than England winning a penalty shootout?
It had never happened at a World Cup before. Indeed, penalty shootout heartache is woven into the fabric of England’s footballing culture. They just don’t win them.
But this is a new England. After being pegged back by Colombia’s injury-time equaliser, their confidence must have taken a hit, but they kept their nerve after a cagey extra-time period to stun the world by doing the one thing they’re not supposed to do. They won a penalty shootout.
Here are two words: Brazilian football.
Now close your eyes and allow your mind to wander for a while, led by those two words.
What images were evoked? Pele, no doubt, featured somewhere in your recollections – perhaps his famous chip and volley goal as a teenager in the 1958 World Cup Final, or his casual but glorious assist for skipper Carlos Alberto at the climax of the 1970 Final.
Depending on your age, you might also have thought of the creative skills of players like Zico or Socrates, the goalscoring exploits of Romario or (the original) Ronaldo, or the gap-toothed joyful exuberance of Ronaldinho.
More recent images to come to mind perhaps, were Neymar dancing past defenders, Philippe Coutinho blasting long-range shots towards goal, or Marcelo striding with poise and athleticism down the left wing.
But now picture Paulinho, lumbering his way through midfield with heavy touches and clumsy passes, barging past teammates and opponents alike in a ferocious show of occasionally ill-directed muscle-power.
Not exactly the prototype Brazilian footballer, is he?
Except he is, and Paulinho’s strong but silent performance in Monday’s 2-0 last-16 victory over Mexico served to show why he, just as much as Neymar, should be regarded as the encapsulation of his team’s efforts to claim a sixth world title in Russia this summer.
Paulinho is certainly an enigma. After a spectacularly unsuccessful spell in English football with Tottenham, he was derided as the worst player in the London club’s history and seemingly consigned to the backwaters of Chinese football, never to appear again in the wider world’s consciousness.
But then came an unexpected renaissance, with his eye-catching performances in China – under the management of Brazilian coaching legend Luiz Felipe Scolari – allowing him to regain his place in the national team and, eventually, earning a big-money transfer to none other than Barcelona.
Paulinho divided Barca fans when he was signed, and he does still.
Some see him as a clumsy clod-hopper whose limited technique disowns everything the club stands for; others regard him as an indispensable and reinvigorating member of a double-winning team, who could have also rescued their Champions League campaign if he hadn’t been left on the bench for the embarrassing exit in Roma.
Whatever you think, he was certainly an important member of Barca’s title triumph, making 34 league appearances – more than any other outfield player except Lionel Messi and Ivan Rakitic – and finishing third in the team’s goalscoring charts behind Messi and Luis Suarez.
And how he’s playing a similarly fundamental role for Brazil, maintaining his status as an unquestioned member of the starting XI and showing his scoring abilities with a well-taken opener against Serbia in the final group game.
But other than his occasional goals, what is it about this strange player, who looks so limited but is managing to simultaneously hold down starting slots for both Barcelona and Brazil? What does he actually do?
It’s worth asking because his importance doesn’t really show up on the stats sheet.
In Monday’s game with Mexico, for example, he had fewer touches than any other Brazil player except striker Gabriel Jesus (38). He attempted just one shot, delivered only one cross, and registered his team’s joint lowest pass completion rate (80 per cent). He wasn’t credited with any interceptions or clearances, and only made one tackle – compared to six by midfield partner Casemiro.
What does he do, then?
The key to Paulinho’s importance is those awkward intangibles. He’s in the right place, at the right time, to deliver the right thing for his team – whatever that might happen to be, even if it’s as basic as getting in the way of the opposition.
He has great game intelligence, complementing the more talented performers in his side by keeping a disciplined position, whilst also having the physical strength and energy to cover both ends of the pitch – tidying up on the edge of his own box at one moment and then supporting an attack on the edge of the opposition’s the next.
Other than his occasional long-range shots, not much that he does is flashy. But he is efficient, playing a major role in the solid organisational structure which allowed Barcelona to base their title triumph on an excellent defensive record (29 goals conceded in 38 games) and is now helping Brazil to do the same (one goal allowed in four games).
Paulinho can’t dribble past five opponents or thread the needle of the opposition defence with a perfect pass, but he does keep his team’s shape, maintain his discipline and make Brazil difficult to play against.
Even though you might not be able to notice Paulinho too much when he’s there, you certainly would notice it if he wasn’t. And for those reasons, this one-time Premier League reject could well soon end up with a World Cup winner’s medal around his neck.