2018-19 EPL Match Day 15 Preview — Manchester United (6-4-4) vs. Arsenal (9-3-2)

Fourth place in the Premier League table is a spot Arsenal have been intimately familiar with for more than a decade. But unlike seasons past, currently occupying that slot is providing previously unseen optimism as the Gunners go from an intense north London derby win to a mouth-watering clash at Old Trafford against Manchester United on Wednesday.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Since winning their last Premier League title in 2004, Arsenal (9-3-2) have finished fourth in six of the previous 14 seasons. The constant battle to remain a Champions League participant under predecessor Arsene Wenger hid the gradual erosion from the elite status the London club enjoyed – something that came home to roost over the Frenchman’s final two seasons with fifth and sixth-place finishes.

Unai Emery’s arrival, initially met with skepticism following his flameout from Paris-St. Germain, has brought renewed spark and life to Arsenal, who are now unbeaten in 19 matches (15-4-0) across all competitions after a 4-2 victory over north London rival Tottenham Hotspur in a white-hot derby clash at the Emirates on Sunday.

The Gunners shook off a 2-1 halftime deficit with three unanswered goals in the final 45 minutes. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who converted a first-half penalty, completed his brace on 56 minutes with a well-placed shot inside the right post that left Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris flat-footed.

The Gunners then grabbed the match with two goals two minutes apart starting in the 75th. Aaron Ramsey forced a Spurs turnover at midfield and sprung Alexandre Lacazette, whose shot took a fortunate deflection off Spurs midfielder Eric Dier and snuck inside the left post. Lucas Torreira then scored his first Arsenal goal, ripping a shot across Lloris after being sent through by Aubameyang.

The Emirates crowd, roiled so much by “Wenger In” and “Wenger Out” factions in recent years, roared their approval in unison as Arsenal overtook their eternal rivals for fourth place on goal difference and are one back of Chelsea for third.

“It’s not just an important game for a manager to win against a team from the top six, it’s important for us as a team,” keeper Bernd Leno told the club’s official website. “We lost the first two games against Chelsea and Manchester City but against Liverpool we played very well. We didn’t win that one but today we won against a good team and showed a very good performance.”

Emery will be forced into one change since defensive midfielder Granit Xhaka picked up his fifth yellow card and must serve a one-match ban. Matteo Guendouzi will likely fill that spot as Emery could continue with a 3-4-3 set-up for a second straight contest.

It is uncertain if Mesut Ozil will be available after the playmaker missed Sunday’s match through a back injury. Ozil did not play against Bournemouth per Emery’s decision, and with Ramsey surprisingly coming on after the club rescinded a contract offer for beyond next season, the former Germany international’s status is starting to bubble into an unwanted distraction for the Gunners. Emery, though, seems to be relishing his English adventures as they take him from one high-stakes game to another with Wednesday’s match-up.

“It’s a new match, a new challenge, a big challenge,” he said Monday. “It’s away and we need to continue improving our mentality away. We know we need to change to get more competitive away. I think the team is doing that, but it’s a new challenge because we’re going to play against Manchester United away, and the challenge is bigger than other matches.

“For us, it’s a very exciting match. The preparation for this match is also a big motivation for us. If we are stronger now, we need to (show that) on Wednesday.”

As Arsenal bring a tidal wave of momentum to Old Trafford, the inconsistencies persist for Manchester United (6-4-4). For the second time already this term, Jose Mourinho’s team recovered at least one point from a two-goal deficit after finishing 2-2 at Southampton on Saturday.

With a lack of available bodies in central defence, Mourinho opted for a 5-3-2 set-up that included midfielders Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay as his three centre backs. The plan backfired spectacularly as a relegation-threatened Saints squad were two up after 20 minutes.

United’s fightback revolved around Marcus Rashford, whom Mourinho exasperated midweek after missing a gilt-edged chance in their Champions League win over Young Boys. The England international set up goals by Romelu Lukaku and Ander Herrera six minutes apart late in the first half – the latter a spectacular run along the end line before spotting a charging Herrera — that was enough to see United through for a point.

“Yes (it was two points dropped),” Mourinho said post-match. “The result is not good so I have to say we dropped two points. If you are losing 4-0 and you get to 4-4 I would say maybe not. I think the comeback is good from 2-0 down to 2-2 in normal conditions everybody says it is a point gained, you have the game lost and you get a point, so normally you say it is a positive point, but it is a match that we want to win.”

Mourinho, though, was optimistic Lukaku’s goal will get the Belgium international to finally kick on. His fifth goal of the season in all competitions ended a personal 981-minute drought stretching back to Sept. 15 at Watford.

Like his counterpart, Mourinho is forced into one change for this match since right back Ashley Young picked up his fifth yellow card. The most likely option to replace him is Diogo Dalot, who made his long-awaited Premier League debut after left back Luke Shaw was forced off with a knock. Mourinho could also turn to Antonio Valencia or play Marcus Rojo at left back if Shaw cannot play.

Central defence, though, continues to be a nightmare as Phil Jones figures to be the only centre back certain to play. Chris Smalling sat out Saturday with a knock, and Mourinho continues to have little faith in Eric Bailly. Victor Lindelof is out until Boxing Day with a hamstring injury, so there could be more of Matic and McTominay as part of a five-man back line.

Mourinho hopes to have Rashford available after lifting him for the final 15 minutes with a knock. Jesse Lingard would be the most obvious replacement on the right attacking side for United, while Anthony Martial could be restored to the starting XI if Mourinho reverts to a 4-3-3.

Also unavailable through injury is ex-Arsenal winger Alexis Sanchez, who did play in last season’s corresponding fixture after his January move from the Emirates. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who was shipped to London as part of the move, did score in that 2-1 United victory.

Manchester United did their first double over Arsenal since 2011-12 last term and are unbeaten in their last 11 league matches (8-3-0) against them at Old Trafford. The Gunners did record an FA Cup quarterfinal win in 2015, but they are just 4-7-19 at the Theatre of Dreams in the Premier League era.

Arsenal’s last league victory at Manchester United was a 1-0 win in 2006 courtesy an 85th-minute goal from Emmanuel Adebayor.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Manchester United are slight favourites at 29/20, with the Gunners 2/1 underdogs to leave Old Trafford with three points for the first time in league play in over a decade. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 5/2 and the longshot of this contest.

Oddsmakers are expecting the same kind of frailities at the back they showed over the weekend, with 8/13 odds for the total to clear 2.5 goals compared to 13/10 for two or fewer goals. There are 1/2 odds for both teams to score while there are 6/4 odds of at least one team recording a clean sheet.

While not surprising given his form and his club’s form, it is still a little jarring to see a Gunner lead the toteboard at Old Trafford with Aubameyang getting 7/2 odds to open the scoring. Lacazette and Lukaku are joint-second at 5/1, with the United duo of Martial and Paul Pogba at 13/2. Young Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah and ex-United winger Mkhitaryan join Rashford at 7/1 odds to open the scoring.

Aubameyang is also better than even money to score during the 90 minutes, getting 10/11 odds. Lacazette and Lukaku are again paired together at 13/10, with Martial and Pogba likewise at 7/4 odds. Nketiah, Mkhitaryan and Rashford all have 15/8 odds to find the back of net, with Lingard and Emile-Smith Rowe are both 13/5.

PREDICTION

These are the type of matches where Mourinho is renown for finding a way to win and defy the odds of the moment… and then letting everyone know about it. Yet his refusal to play Bailly — though it was revealed before the Southampton match he has a back injury —  and now, not playing Rojo has created a discombobulated back line that will have its hands full trying to stop an Arsenal offence flowing at top pace.

Then there is the on-going war of trying to get the best out of Pogba, with whom Mourinho had another tete-a-tete in the locker room at halftime of the Southampton match in which the manager “calmly” criticised the France international for turning the ball over so much. In turn, Pogba said Mourinho’s system does not give him the freedom of movement to make the passes he wants.

This is a match United need to at worst not lose if they have any serious designs on a top-four finish. They are not overturning the already-16 point deficit to front-running City. Lose this match, and Arsenal are 11 points clear of United with 23 matches to play. It sounds doable, but given the week-to-week fluctuations in quality of play and mood of Mourinho, does anyone truly know what they will get from Manchester United?

There will be many things interesting about this contest, starting with Dalot at right back in a pressure cooker of an environment with an in-form Aubameyang ready to corkscrew him into the ground. Yet the real X-factor on that side may be Kolasinac, who looks like Emery’s mad scientist experiment come to life with unorthodox runs.

Another point of curiosity is who starts in the middle of the park for United. Does Mourinho risk Matic being exposed for his lack of pace, or does he put either Herrera or Pogba? Herrera may be the better answer considering Pogba leads the Premier League in lost balls this season, but it may sacrifice link play to their front three. 

This is where Lingard could be the most vital part of United’s XI because he’s the one who enjoys doing damage on the edge of the penalty area and will not be afraid to test Leno from distance.

For the Gunners, there is still concern about the back, three in this case. Xhaka’s absence could loom large, but the moment should not be too big for Guendouzi to fill his spot. Additionally, Torreira has been everything and then some since arriving from Sampdoria via Uruguay this summer. The 22-year-old embodies the renewed vigour and, dare it be said? — swagger of Arsenal, taking the yellow card for the shirt removal celebration after Arsenal’s fourth.

This could be the ships passing in the night moment where Arsenal are truly on their way while Manchester United continue to pile up a list of questions and holes that need to be answered and addressed. Yet again, it could very well be the case where Mourinho has one or two last aces in his deck and will find a way to snare a point.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 1, Arsenal 1.

Other EPL Match Day 15 Previews:
Bournemouth (6-2-6) vs. Huddersfield Town (2-4-8)
Watford (6-2-6) vs. Manchester City (12-2-0)
Burnley (2-3-9) vs. Liverpool (11-3-0)
Wolverhampton (4-4-6) vs. Chelsea (9-4-1)

2018 World Cup Semifinal Preview — France vs. Belgium (Match 61)

A spot in the World Cup final is on the line Tuesday in St. Petersburg, where France looks to advance to its third championship match at the expense of Belgium, which is trying to get there for the first time.

Les Bleus are looking to reach the final for the third time in the last seven World Cups after winning it on home soil in 1998 and losing to Italy on penalties in Germany eight years later in a game infamous for Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt on Marco Materazzi that resulted in his ejection in extra time.

France manager Didier Deschamps was on the 1998 squad and is looking to become the third person to win the World Cup both as a player and a manger, hoping to join a short list comprised of German great Franz Beckenbauer and Brazil’s Mario Zagallo.

Deschamps made a shrewd tactical move that helped France ease past Uruguay 2-0 in the quarterfinals, dropping Paul Pogba deeper in the midfield to have him work in tandem with N’Golo Kante without the suspended Blaise Matuidi and pushing Corentin Tolisso forward on the left.

Antoine Griezmann provided the assist on Rapahel Varane’s goal in the first half and was gifted his third goal of the tournament on a howler by Uruguay keeper Fernando Muslera in the second as Les Bleus were able to focus on shutting down Luis Suarez without his injured strike partner Edinson Cavani and had a mainly comfortable match.

Keeper Hugo Lloris posted his third clean sheet of the tournament, and his diving save to palm out Martin Caceres’ downward header to preserve France’s one-goal lead late in the first half was one of the best at this World Cup. The only three goals he has allowed in the run of play came against Argentina, and the Tottenham Hotspur No. 1 had little chance of stopping any of them.

Belgium is in the semifinals for the first time in 32 years after a legacy-defining win for its golden generation — a 2-1 victory over five-time champion Brazil. The challenge for the Red Devils now is to not be content with having just one such victory while in Russia.

An own goal by Brazil’s Fernandinho and a searing world-class strike from Kevin De Bruyne in the first 31 minutes were enough to see them through, but not without a standout effort from keeper Thibaut Courtois.

Courtois finished with eight saves, none more important than the last one when he tipped Neymar’s 20-yard effort over the bar in the third minute of second-half stoppage time. The Chelsea shot-stopper had made just 10 saves in Belgium’s first four matches before being tested repeatedly by the Selecao.

Like his French counterpart, Belgium manager Roberto Martinez also made some savvy tactical and personnel decisions, opting for a 3-4-3 set up while new starters Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli made noticeable impacts after their star turns off the bench helped Belgium overcome a 2-0 deficit in the round of 16 against Japan.

Belgium, which has scored a World Cup-high 14 goals, has had nine different players score at least one. Romelu Lukaku is joint-second with Cristiano Ronaldo with four goals, while Eden Hazard — with two markers — is the only other Belgium player with more than one.

The Red Devils’ only previous semifinal appearance was a 2-0 defeat to eventual champion Argentina in Mexico City in 1986.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

France
June 16 — France 2, Australia 1 (Griezmann 58′ (PK), Jedinak 62′ (PK), Behich 81′ (og))
June 21 — France 1, Peru 0 (Mbappe 34′)
June 26 — France 0, Denmark 0
June 30 — France 4, Argentina 3 (Griezmann 13′ (PK), Di Maria 41′, Mercado 48′, Pavard 57′, Mbappe 64′, Mbappe 68′, Aguero 90+3′)
July 6 — France 2, Uruguay 0 (Varane 40′, Griezmann 61′)

Belgium
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′)
July 6 — Belgium 2, Brazil 1 (Fernandinho 13′ (og), De Bruyne 31′, Augusto 76′)

FORMATIONS

Each team is expected to make one change, though Belgium’s is enforced since Thomas Meunier must serve a one-match ban for his two yellow cards accrued in the first five matches.

Matuidi is expected to be restored to France’s starting XI after serving a one-match ban for a pair of bookings. He will be flanked by Kante, and that pairing allows Pogba to move up to a more attacking role in the midfield to serve as a link with Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and target forward Olivier Giroud.

Martinez has a more challenging decision in replacing Meunier, with Dries Mertens likely the choice over Yannick Carrasco on that right flank because of his creativity and pace. If Carrasco is restored on the left side, Belgium could switch Chadli to the right and utilize a 4-4-2 formation.

Fellaini and Axel Witsel will try to be a shutdown pair in the midfield to take some of the defensive pressure off playmakers De Bruyne and Eden Hazard.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

With Matuidi back in the fold, everyone is eligible, and Les Bleus have not reported any injuries. Belgium should have everyone available save the suspended Meunier.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

France – N’Golo Kante (MF)

A maestro of midfield disruption, Kante is no stranger to Belgium’s trident of offense — Hazard is his teammate at Chelsea while both Lukaku and De Bruyne represent both sides of Manchester in the Premier League. If he is unable to disrupt the trio through the middle third, the Red Devils would able to flow through the middle on their lethal counterattack. If he can, Kante becomes the originator of a transition offense that could strike quickly through Mbappe, Pogba and Griezmann.

Kante’s play harkens back to his manager’s role on the 1998 Cup-winning squad, though he is more comfortable joining the fray offensively unlike Deschamps, who perfected the role of “water-carrier” as a defensive midfielder.

Belgium – Eden Hazard (SS)

Hazard did a ton of work against Brazil and took on the forward role in the final minutes after Lukaku was subbed off, getting possession and winning fouls in Brazil’s half to chew up precious seconds of second-half stoppage time. He did miss a chance to kill off the match when he fizzed a shot wide of the right post with Lukaku wide open there, but don’t count on Hazard missing a second such chance should the opportunity present itself.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

1938 (France) R/16 — France 3, Belgium 1 (Veinante 1′, Nicolas 16′, Isemborghs 38′, Nicolas 69′)
1986 (Mexico) 3rd — France 4, Belgium 2 a.e.t. (Ceulemans 11′, Ferreri 27′, Papin 43′, Claesen 73′, Genghini 104′, Amoros 111′ (PK))

Veinante’s goal is still tied for the sixth-fastest goal in World Cup history as he scored 35 seconds into France’s victory in 1938. The 1986 clash for third in Mexico was the last major tournament match between the sides.

They last met in a 2015 friendly in Paris, with Belgium pulling out a 4-3 victory. Fellaini had a first-half brace and Hazard added a goal in the 54th minute to give Belgium a 4-1 lead before France got late goals from Nabil Fekir and Dimitri Payet.

This is the 74th all-time meeting between the teams, with Belgium recording 30 wins to France’s 24. The teams have played to draws on 19 occasions.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, France is a slight favorite at 7/5 odds, while Belgium is a 2/1 underdog. The odds of the match going to penalty kicks after a draw are 11/5. The odds of two total goals being scored are the front runners at 5/2, followed by three (16/5) and one (10/3).

For first goal-scorers, Lukaku and Griezmann are joint-favorites at 9/2 odds, with Mbappe right behind the pair at 5/1. Belgium reserve Michy Batshuayi is fourth at 11/2 while Giroud is 6/1 to give France a 1-0 lead with his first goal of the World Cup.

Griezmann has 6/5 odds as an any-time goal-scorer, slightly lower than Lukaku (9/5) and Mbappe (2/1).

PREDICTION

In a clash of contrasting styles, it is the side that who does not change their identity that usually emerges with the better chance of winning. While France has won its knockout-round matches in differing styles — a wide-open firewagon of a win over Argentina followed by a more composed defensive suffocation of Uruguay in the quarterfinals, it has not strayed in its overall approach.

And Les Bleus can take away lessons learned from their victory over Argentina, which shares some similarities with Belgium in terms of attacking talent and volume, though Martinez’s playmakers are better than La Albiceleste’s creative types — save Messi, of course.

The Red Devils, though, not only have talented offensive options, they have intelligent ones. De Bruyne and Hazard are masters of off-the-ball movement and able to deliver killer passes from anywhere on the pitch. While Lukaku has not scored a goal in the last two contests, he has made key contributions to two of the four goals scored through a dummy against Japan and his rumble through the midfield to set up De Bruyne’s heat-seeker versus Brazil.

France, though, also has offensive skill and nous to burn in Griezmann, Pogba, Giroud and Mbappe. With Belgium, utilizing a three-man backline, Deschamps has offensive options at his disposal in which he can deploy Giroud high in the penalty area to flick on passes that Mbappe and Griezmann can race onto, or the Chelsea striker can knock them down nearby to let the pair try and shoot the gaps on either side of Vincent Kompany.

The four defensive midfielders — Matuidi and Kante for France vs Witsel and Fellaini for Belgium — will likely decide this match. If each pair is successful in neutralizing the opposition, the contest will then come down to the proverbial moment of individual magic. If neither duo play to their capabilities, this can turn into another five or seven-goal thriller the two sides have already survived in the knockout round.

Whoever Martinez uses to take Meunier’s spot will be an early clue to how Belgium will go forward. If it is Mertens, that strikes of the same attacking philosophy that went into his side’s shape against Brazil. France’s wide backs — Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard — will not pour forward freely like Brazil’s did, but given how that allows Griezmann and Mbappe space to flitter around the final third, it also makes pulling Chadli to right back in a 4-4-2 set-up and introducing Carrasco on the left flank a logical fallback.

This should be an entertaining game, especially with that cagey duel in the midfield. There are going to be enough moments in this match where quality dictates both teams will get at least one goal. The hedge here is that France finds the space for a second and potentially a third late while Belgium doesn’t get past a second.

PREDICTION: France 3, Belgium 1

UP Next

The winner of this match will play the winner of the Croatia-England match for the World Cup trophy Sunday at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. The losers of the two semifinals will play Saturday in St. Petersburg for third place.

 

 

2018 World Cup Recap 54 — Belgium 3, Japan 2 (July 2)

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.