While Belgium’s golden generation finally has a memorable World Cup victory to its credit, it also presented the Red Devils with an opportunity to record a legacy-defining one Friday when it faces five-time champion Brazil in the quarterfinals at Kazan.
Down two goals with less than a half-hour to play and seemingly out of answers against a Japan side which was equal parts opportunistic and ruthless, Belgium manager Roberto Martinez introduced Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli into the match hoping to ignite his listless club.
After an unlikely headed goal by Jan Vertonghen started the fight back, both Fellaini and Chadli put their stamps on the match over the final 20 minutes, with Fellaini heading home the equalizer on 74 minutes before Chadli calmly slotted home a cross from Thomas Meunier with the final kick of the game in the fourth minute of stoppage time as Belgium recorded a famous 3-2 victory and avoided a shock loss that would have added another chapter to the recent shortcomings of this side.
Chadli’s goal may have been the most breathtaking of the World Cup thus far given the time and circumstances of the match. It capped an end-to-end rush that started when Japan made the fateful position to put a corner kick on frame that goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois caught and quickly rolled out to Kevin De Bruyne. The Manchester City star hared through midfield and passed ahead to Meunier, whose cross was expertly dummied by Romelu Lukaku before Chadli ran onto it and scored his sixth international goal.
“You have to find solutions, you have to find reaction but what you have to find more than anything is the desire and togetherness of a group of players, that they are desperate to perform,” Martinez told The Associated Press after Belgium became the first team to rally from two goals down and win a World Cup match since West Germany did so in 1970 against England.
“I think it’s a game that when you are a little boy, you dream of being involved in a World Cup, facing Brazil in a quarterfinal,” he added, “so from our point of view we can enjoy from the first second.”
While this is Belgium’s second consecutive World Cup quarterfinal appearance, it has not reached the semifinals since a fourth-place finish in 1986 that remains its best showing. The Red Devils, though, have never beaten a South American squad in the knockout round, losing twice to Argentina and once to Brazil while failing to score in all three matches.
Brazil has endured similar shortcomings against European sides of late, with its last knockout victory over a continental side coming in 2002 when it defeated Germany to lift the Jules Rimet trophy for a fifth side. There have since been elimination losses to France and the Netherlands in the quarterfinals before the Selecao’s humbling 7-1 semifinal loss to Die Mannschaft in Belo Horizonte four years ago.
Brazil, though, is making its seventh consecutive appearance in the quarterfinals after dispatching of Mexico 2-0. Neymar opened the scoring with his second goal of the tournament and sixth career World Cup goal and all but had an official assist as his cross that was tipped by Mexico keeper Guillermo Ochoa still led to Roberto Firmino’s late goal that sealed the win.
The theatrics that come with Neymar’s breathtaking offensive skills continued in the round of 16 match as he exaggerated the impact of a stamp from Mexico’s Miguel Layun on the sidelines. Still, Neymar has drawn a staggering 23 fouls — eight more than Lionel Messi, who is second with 15 — and his teammates came to his defense.
“This is normal because he has many qualities. The players who defend him make fouls,” Thiago Silva told The42. “Because it’s always hard to defend Neymar and take the ball without making fouls.”
Silva and the Selecao’s defense has also delivered in Russia, conceding just one goal in four matches and carry a 310-minute shutout streak since allowing that goal off a set piece early in the second half of the first match against Switzerland. That has been one of the underrated aspects of Tite’s makeover of Brazil, which has conceded just six goals in 25 matches since his arrival.
Brazil, however is facing a Belgium squad that has scored a tournament-best 12 goals and will do so without defensive midfielder Casemiro, who picked up his second yellow card of the tournament versus El Tri and will serve his one-match ban in this contest.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
June 17 — Brazil 1, Switzerland 1 (Coutinho 20′, Zuber 50′)
June 22 — Brazil 2, Costa Rica 0 (Coutinho 90+1′, Neymar 90+7′)
June 27 — Brazil 2, Serbia 0 (Paulinho 36′, Thiago Silva 68′)
July 2 — Brazil 2, Mexico 0 (Neymar 51′, Firmino 88′)
June 18 — Belgium 3, Panama 0 (Mertens 47′, Lukaku 69′, 75′)
June 23 — Belgium 5, Tunisia 2 (Hazard 6′ (PK), Lukaku 16′, Bronn 18′, Lukaku 45+3′, Hazard 51, Batshuayi 90′, Khazri 90+3′)
June 28 — Belgium 1, England 0 (Januzaj 51′)
July 2 — Belgium 3, Japan 2 (Haraguchi 48′, Inui 52′, Vertonghen 69′, Fellaini 74′, Chadli 90+4′)
The two expected changes for Brazil will be at left back, where Marcelo should return after sitting out the Mexico match due to back spasms, and central midfield, where Fernandinho is the most likely replacement for the suspended Casemiro. It is possible Danilo could return at right back, but Fagner also did not do anything to warrant being displaced in starting the last three matches.
After using a three-man back line throughout group play and again against Japan, it would seem prudent for Martinez to go to a four-man back against a team with as much firepower as Brazil. It is a seamless transition for his wide backs as Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld serve in the same capacity at Tottenham, and Dedryck Boyata acquitted himself well enough deputizing for Kompany in group play that the two should be a serviceable tandem in central defense.
The unknown variable is how Martinez will line up his midfielders and attacking wingers underneath Lukaku. It would seem likely Axel Witsel would be dropped for this match given his ineffectiveness against Japan, which opens the door for Mousa Dembele on the left side. While De Bruyne playing in front of the back four is not his best position given his playmaking skills, he is surplus to goods up front with Eden Hazard there and likely will drop into that role.
Meunier was a constant menace against Japan marauding up and down the right flank and will need to do so to prevent Marcelo from doing likewise for Brazil. Dries Mertens will have to shake off a poor performance against Japan, and his creativity could prove vital here.
INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES
Casemiro will serve his one-match suspension, and while Danilo is healthy enough to play, he has not been able to unseat Fagner. Brazil has three players — Neymar, Coutinho and Filipe Luis — one booking away in this match from being suspended for the semifinals.
While Belgium has five players with one yellow card, only three of them — De Bruyne, Meunier and Vertonghen — are in its starting XI. No one has been reported injured for the Red Devils since Kompany successfully overcame the groin injury that sidelined him the first two group matches.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Brazil — Willian
Willian had his best match of the World Cup by miles against Mexico. He assisted on Neymar’s goal and popped up everywhere as his pace gave El Tri’s back four problems throughout the second half. While he has yet to score entering his 10th career World Cup contest, the Chelsea winger must continue to stretch defenses to create the gaps Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho can exploit.
Belgium — Eden Hazard (MF)
With Casemiro’s absence from Brazil’s midfield in front of the back four, Hazard will be able to glean some of Fernandinho’s tendencies from his Manchester City teammate De Bruyne. If Demeble is introduced on the left side, look for Hazard to take on a more centrally located role in the offense in the form of a traditional No. 10 playmaker while trying to pick out Lukaku both through the air and on the ground.
WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD
2002 (Japan/South Korea) R/16 — Brazil 2, Belgium 0 (Rivaldo 67′, Ronaldo 87‘)
The scoreline from their only previous World Cup encounter flatters Brazil because Belgium proved a worthy opponent and had a goal by Marc Wilmots in the 36th minute disallowed. Wilmots was also a handful when the Red Devils controlled the first part of the second half before Rivaldo scored on a shot that took a deflection off Daniel van Buyten.
Ronaldo added the second with three minutes remaining after Belgium had opened up trying to find a late equalizer.
This is just the fifth overall meeting between the teams, with Brazil winning friendlies in 1965 and 1988. Belgium’s lone victory came in the first match between the sides in 1963.
Per Ladbrokes, Brazil is a solid 11/10 favorite while Belgium is listed as a 5/2 underdog. The odds of the match ending in a draw and going to penalty kicks are 23-10. Given the offensive skills of both sides, picking zero for total goals returns 9/1 odds, while a total of two goals is the current odds-on favorite at 13/5.
Unsurprisingly, Neymar is the favorite for first goal-scorer at 7/2, while Lukaku returns 9/2 odds if he can bag his fifth goal of the World Cup to give Belgium a 1-0 lead. Neymar’s strike partners Jesus and Firmino are at 5/1, while Michy Batshuayi is the second-rated option for the Red Devils at 6/1.
As much as everyone would like to see these sides go full throttle and put up 10 goals in this match in some sort of 6-4 thriller or 5-5 draw that goes to penalties and further ruins goalkeepers’ lives, let’s throw some cold water on that with a reminder there were five goals combined in the four quarterfinals in Brazil four years ago.
Martinez and Belgium have to enter this contest with some sort of pragmatic approach, which is why the switch to the four-man back line seems likely. After all, who wants Marcelo having free reign on the left side along with Neymar and Philippe Coutinho to create a triangle of terror around Alderweireld?
Make no mistake, Belgium will attack at every opportunity presented by Brazil, but it must not get sucked into leaving huge gaps of space behind when it does that like it did against Japan. Some of that was because of playing three at the back, but some of it was also because Samurai Blue used their pace to great success.
Lukaku versus Silva will be one of the best heavyweight matchups between striker and central defender at this World Cup, and while his dummy that shaped Chadli’s goal showed the big man’s nous, this match is a great opportunity for Lukaku to shed some of the flat-track bully reputation he acquired at Manchester United after failing to score against top-six opponents in the Premier League this past season.
While Neymar will undoubtedly be the recipient of multiple fouls, one gets the sense Belgium will not play as cynically on defense as previous opponents. That is partly because Belgium is not a world-class defensive side, but also in part because Belgium play with flow and have yet to muck things up while in Russia.
There are plenty of high-profile matchups throughout the pitch for this contest, and while there is no clear-cut reason to pick against Brazil and for Belgium, sometimes a team comes along at the right time to embrace its moment of destiny. And the hunch here is the Red Devils do just that.
PREDICTION: Belgium 3, Brazil 2
The winner of this match will play the winner of the France-Uruguay match in the semifinals in St. Petersburg on Tuesday.