Nacer Chadli’s goal in the 94th minute was the final kick of the game and capped an end-to-end rush as Belgium became the first team in 48 years to win a World Cup match after trailing by two goals in a thrilling 3-2 victory over Japan on Monday in Rostov-on-Don.
Thibaut Courtois intercepted a corner kick from the left and instantly rolled it ahead to Kevin De Bruyne, who stormed through the middle of the pitch unchallenged. He pushed it ahead to Thomas Meunier on the right, and he advanced to the penalty area before laying it back into the middle.
Striker Romelu Lukaku ran a perfect dummy to his right as the ball continued to Chadli, who calmly slotted home from six yards past a diving Eiji Kawashima to set off a delirious celebration. Referee Malang Diedhiou blew his whistle immediately after the restart as multiple Japanese players slumped to the pitch after their team’s most agonizing loss in World Cup history.
Belgium became the first team to overturn a two-goal deficit at the World Cup since West Germany rallied to beat England 3-2 after extra time in the 1970 quarterfinals. Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini scored in the 69th and 73rd minutes to start the fight back as manager Roberto Martinez’s decision to introduce Fellaini and Chadli on a double switch in the 65th minute paid huge dividends.
The Red Devils are in the quarterfinals for the second straight World Cup and will face Brazil in Kazan on Saturday in a clash of the third and second-best teams in the world according to FIFA rankings.
Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui scored four minutes apart early in the second half for Japan, which looked nothing like the side that scraped through into the round of 16 on the FIFA fair play tiebreaker over Senegal.
Even at 2-0, Samurai Blue refused to sit back and tried to kill off the match with a third goal rather than kill time, going forward even after being pulled back in stunning fashion by Belgium. But that decision by coach Akira Nishino proved fateful, costing Japan its first quarterfinal appearance in club history.
After a scoreless first half which was played at a blistering pace and mainly in Japan’s half despite Samurai Blue getting some quality chance of their own, it was Japan who grabbed the lead three minutes after the restart on the counter.
Shinji Kagawa played a great through ball from his own half that Vertonghen failed to deal with on the right as Haraguchi got behind him.
Haraguchi got on the ball and enough time to re-settle his feet in the penalty area before taking a right-footed shot across Courtois and inside the left post.
Enraged into action after such a sloppy goal conceded, Belgium nearly equalized straightaway as Hazard thundered one off the right post after an excellent layoff from Meunier.
Japan’s second goal in the 52nd minute, however, was richly deserved. Inui played a cross that was cleared by Vincent Kompany only as far as Kagawa at the top of the box. After a feint to his left, Kagawa laid off to Inui, who laced a right-footed shot from 25 yards that sliced away from a diving Courtois and inside the right post.
Lukaku narrowly missed a header wide of the left post in the 62nd minute on a cross by Meunier. But Japan continued to press forward trying to kill off the match, with Courtois getting a boot to a low cross from the end line by Yuya Osako.
In the 68th minute, Maya Yoshida’s step-perfect intervention prevented an almost certain goal by Lukaku as he deflected the Manchester United’s striker shot out for a throw-in. But Belgium’s pressure on the play that followed finally caused Japan to crack as Vertonghen looped a hopeful header from 15 yards deep in the left penalty area close to the end line with Kawashima caught out. The ball looped over him and nicked the crossbar before dropping inside the right post to make it 2-1.
Their tails now up, the Red Devils equalized when Fellaini met Hazard’s whipped-in cross from the left and powerfully headed home from six yards.
Japan, though, refused to back down and nearly fashioned a chance in the 84th minute as Kagawai tried to play Inui through into the left penalty area that required a sliding intervention by Kompany.
Kawashimi put aside the disappointment of conceding two goals with a double save in the 86th minute, first diving to his right to push out a header by Chadli and then pushing Lukaku’s powerful header from eight yards over the bar. He parried a powerful left-footed shot by Vertonghen from 25 yards on the left in the next minute as Belgium hunted a late winner in an end-to-end slugfest.
Courtois rescued his team from an own goal right on 90 minutes as he pushed a ball deflected by Fellaini around the left post. He had to make another diving save to his right three minutes later as Keisuke Honda knuckled a 40-yard free kick that dropped into a threatening area on goal. It was that corner kick conceded which led to Belgium’s stunning match-winner.
The Chelsea keeper almost had the mother of all World Cup howlers right before halftime as he let the ball slip through his hands and legs after stopping a toe poke by Yuya Osako. Courtois, though, was able to turn around and dive on the slow-rolling ball with a yard to spare.
The teams had vastly different lineups from their respective final group matches. Martinez became the second manager to make 10 changes to his lineup after Belgium’s mainly meaningless match against England that saw it go top of the group, while Nishino made six changes as he brought back the XI that drew Senegal 2-2.
Inui also had Japan’s best chance in the first half, with his header from 10 yards comfortably caught by Courtois on the half-hour after Yuto Nagatomo sent a cross in from the left after a nifty backheel by Kagawa as he raced in after Meunier misjudged the ball trying to head clear on the sideline.
Belgium racked up five first-half corners but had little to show for it, with Hazard’s vicious swerving shot in the 25th minute the best of the lot as it was parried by Kawashima.