Nacer Chadli rose from the substitutes’ bench to complete Belgium’s comeback from 2-0 down against Japan in the dying embers of injury time and enter World Cup 2018’s quarter-finals with an epic 3-2 win.
The Samurai Blue emerged from a scoreless first half to be two-goals ahead by 52 minutes through Genki Haraguchi’s breakaway and the outstanding Takashi Inui’s piledriver. A first entry into the last eight seemed set from that point.
But Roberto Martinez’s hotly tipped side weren’t done. Headers from Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini levelled things up by 74 minutes at Rostov Arena, before Chadli swept in a 94th-minute counter-attack to become the first nation since West Germany in 1970 to comeback from 2-0 behind in the World Cup’s knockouts.
Belgium will now play favourites Brazil in the next stage.
BELGIUM ARE ALL TOGETHER
Disaster and ignominy, to joy and relief.
De Rode Duivels rode a rollercoaster in Rostov. They, just about, emerged from the other end.
A great World Cup upset was avoided from the moment Martinez ditched his purist principles on 65 minutes, utilising a power play through replacements Fellaini and Chadli.
The key takeaway for Belgium will be the indefatigable spirit on show. Rumours of splits in the camp between Flemish and French speakers, plus an explosive mixture of egos, have bedevilled this ‘Golden Generation’.
Selflessness, exhibited most by striker Romelu Lukaku, is a positive takeaway from a disquieting night.
JAPAN’S TWIN INFLUENCES
The sight of Japan popping passes around a star-studded Belgium side is one to cherish within Asian football circles.
This return to the core Samurai Blue principles was behind April’s decision to dismiss the combustible and dour Vahid Halilhodzic.
But if the Bosnian was watching on Monday, Japan’s retention of a combative defensive shape spoke of a lasting legacy. Lessons this group first learned under current UAE tactician Alberto Zaccheroni.
Vitally, this was twinned by the cute possession and confidence on the ball that current incumbent Akira Nishino has been schooled in throughout his life.
This is a mix that should lead the Samurai Blue to success in January 2019’s Asian Cup – and beyond.
BELGIUM’S BAD POINTS
And now for the negatives.
The 3-1-4-2 formation utilised during Martinez’s two-year reign has sparked debate and discord. Its weaknesses were exposed to the globe by Japan.
Bundesliga pair Makoto Hasebe and Shinji Kagawa constantly picked gaps in the channels. It led to an uncomfortable night for Vertonghen especially, normally so unflappable for Tottenham.
The spaces vacated by wing-backs Thomas Meunier and Yannick Carrasco in transition will make the likes of Neymar and Willian salivate.
Furthermore, the approach makes ineffable playmaker Kevin De Bruyne – a vocal critic in the past – a relative passenger. His only real contribution was to spark the decisive final move.
Belgium possess significant weapons in Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. But systematic weaknesses must be cured, or it’ll be their eventual undoing.
Here are our player ratings for the Selecao:
Allison – 6: Well protected by his back four, he only had one save to make and distributed the ball well.
Fagner – 6: Limited attacking impact and struggled early against the pace of Vela, but more solid later on.
Thiago Silva – 7: Mature and commanding in the centre of defence, showing his experience by organising Brazil’s back line with authority.
Miranda – 7: Regularly beaten in the early exchanges but soon gathered his composure as Mexico lost their spark.
Filipe Luis – 7: Very solid job at left-back, far less rampaging than usual starter Marcelo but solid and steady.
Paulinho – 6: Solid if unflashy job between the penalty areas, making some good defensive interventions and trying to support the attack.
Casemiro – 7: Showed his savvy with some important blocks and interceptions in front of the back four. Booked and will miss the quarter-final.
Philippe Coutinho – 7: Very quiet early on but an increasing influence as Brazil took charge, firing in several efforts. Replaced near the end.
Willian – 7: Limited initial impact but produced a nice assist for the opener and was more and more dangerous as space opened up.
Gabriel Jesus – 6: Linked play cleverly but faded in and out of the game. Place may be under jeopardy after Firmino’s goal.
Neymar – 8: Always dangerous, twice coming close before superbly fashioning and finishing the opener, and then creating the second.
Fernandinho – 7: Replaced Paulinho for the final stages to strengthen the midfield and started the move for the second goal.
Roberto Firmino – 7: Came on for Coutinho at the end and netted the second to secure the win from two yards.
Marquinhos -NA: Came on in stoppage time as a time-wasting sub.
Brazil’s impressive progress through the World Cup continued with an ultimately comfortable 2-0 victory over initially dangerous Mexico, as Neymar starred with a goal and an assist to take his team into the last eight.
Mexico enjoyed much the better of the early stages but Brazil responded strongly, and Tite’s men are looking good as they prepare for a likely mouth-watering showdown with Belgium.
Here are the main stories to emerge from Brazil’s latest victory.
NEYMAR LIGHTS IT UP
Brazil’s chief superstar Neymar hasn’t always made the headlines for the right reasons during this World Cup, but on this occasion the flamboyant winger let his football do the talking as much as his haircuts or theatrical tumbles.
Neymar was always the most dangerous individual on the field, starting in the early stages when he let fly with a swerving long-range strike which Mexico keeper Memo Ochoa punched away with difficulty.
Before long a slaloming run and shot from the left wing provided the most spectacular individual moment of the first half, and shortly after the break he opened the scoring by concluding a dangerous dribble with a clever back-heel to Willian, and then continuing his run to meet the Chelsea man’s low cross with a stretching close-range finish. Before the end he also created the second, racing inside from the left to deliver a shot which Ochoa could only divert straight to Roberto Firmino for a tap-in.
The less admirable side of Neymar’s game emerged as well, as he writhed in (probably fake) agony after an incident with Miguel Layun on the sidelines, but that shouldn’t detract from a match-winning display by a unique player who looks like he is back to his best. Watch out World Cup… Neymar is nowhere near finished yet.
1 - Neymar has attempted the most shots (23) and shots on target (12), as well as creating the most goalscoring chances for his teammates (16) and suffering the most fouls (23) at the 2018 World Cup. Busy.#BRAMEX #BRA #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/wTjXLoro8w— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 2, 2018
BRAZIL WEATHER THE STORM
Mexico started the game in a blistering fashion, throwing plenty of men forward and creating several dangerous positions in the first 20 minutes which could have very easily yielded an opening goal.
With Carlos Vela rampant down the left wing and Hirving Lozano doing the same on the right, while Javier Hernandez sniffed out space in the centre and midfield duo Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado burst forward to attack the box, the Brazilian defence was regularly stretched to breaking point.
But this was a case of bend and not break, as Brazil weathered the storm with a series of well-timed challenges and last-ditch interventions, blocking three shots to ensure that goalkeeper Allison did not have a save to make.
It was impossible for Mexico to maintain that kind of blistering tempo throughout the 90 minutes and the pattern of the game soon changed, with Brazil’s defence having played their part by maintaining a clean sheet to build the foundations for victory.
Representou hoje, Capita! Mais uma excelente partida de @tsilva3 e de todo o sistema defensivo da #SeleçãoBrasileira. Não passa nada na defesa do Brasil! ⚽️🚫🇧🇷 #GigantesPorNatureza #Copa2018— CBF Futebol (@CBF_Futebol) July 2, 2018
Foto: Lucas Figueiredo/CBF pic.twitter.com/UbDd5aPKLt
CASEMIRO LEAVES A GAP
One of the big reasons that Brazil were able to escape unscathed from Mexico’s fast start was the performance of defensive midfielder Casemiro, whose positional sense and strong physical presence protected his back four to perfection.
And although Neymar will understandably grab the headlines, it must not be overlooked that Brazil’s serene progress in Russia is being underpinned by a fine defensive effort with just one goal conceded in four games and three consecutive clean sheets – indeed, despite Mexico’s admirably attacking game-plan they were restricted to just one shot on target, showing that Brazil’s Neymar-inspired flair is backed up by plenty of defensive solidity.
However, Casemiro also picked up his second booking of the tournament and will therefore miss his team’s quarter-final, probably against dangerous Belgium, on Friday. A readymade replacement is available in the form of Manchester City’s Fernandinho, who is in line to enjoy a fascinating tussle with club-mate Kevin De Bruyne.
But he doesn’t possess the same defensive presence as Casemiro, and the Real Madrid man’s outstanding abilities in front of the back four could be sorely missed against a team with the attacking firepower of the Belgians.