“Could this World Cup get any better?”
That question has now been repeated (almost) on a daily basis for the past couple of weeks and it was met with the most resounding “yes” on Monday. In a match that will go down in the history books as one of the greatest World Cup encounters, Belgium edged past Japan to book a date with Brazil in the quarter-finals.
A date that they looked certain to miss two-thirds of the way into the match.
By now, we should all know that an underdog taking the fight to the favourite is to be expected at Russia 2018. But despite the delightful frequency with which it has happened, it leaves us spellbound every time we see it. And the protagonists of the latest Mission Impossible instalment were the band of fighters from Japan.
Only, unlike Tom Cruise’s many missions, this one ultimately did prove impossible for Japan, thanks to Belgium’s smash-and-grab late win. A win that showed this Belgium side might just be more than a group of talented players. A win that showed that Belgium are rightfully considered one of the favourites to go all the way.
The first 45 minutes, though entertaining, were proceeding along expected lines. Belgium were dominating possession, creating bulk of the chances. Japan were disciplined, organised at the back, and showing fantastic recovery speeds to compensate for their physical disparities faced up against Romelu Lukaku.
It was a first half that both sides would have been fairly happy with. Roberto Martinez would have seen enough to know his side has the quality to win it, Akira Nishino had every right to be pleased with how compact his side were.
The previous time these two sides met in a World Cup match was in 2002, and it was 0-0 at half-time back then as well. There was a statistic floating around before the kickoff about four goals being scored in a fantastic 18-minute period in the second half (between 57’ and 75’) in a game that ended 2-2. That felt like good information to have, but nothing more. Surely, that can’t happen again?
Oh, but yes. It did.
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From minute 48 to 74, the game witnessed four goals that took the breath away of everyone watching it unfold.
Japan struck the first two blows. A fantastic counterattack in the 48th minute saw Genki Haraguchi give the Blue Samurai the lead. Another goal of the tournament contender in the 52nd minute saw Takashi Inui put Japan in dreamland. 2-0 up against the world No 3 Belgium.
But here’s the thing about dreams. They always end.
Belgium’s initial response to going 0-2 down was one you’d expect. It was only natural that they were rattled. While Eden Hazard almost made it 1-1 seconds after Japan’s first goal, driving forward and hitting the post with a fantastic curling effort, 2-0 was a scoreline beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. For a brief period after Inui’s goal, Belgium could barely play keep ball. They were hurried in possession, a desperation sneaking into their game.
And that’s when Roberto Martinez realised it was time for Plan B. The one aspect that troubled Japan the most in the first half was Lukaku’s physicality and Martinez decided it was time to triple that threat. Off came the diminutive Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco, on came Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini.
The tactical switch worked like a treat. Instead of trying to unlock the Japanese defence by dribbling and passing through the crowded midfield area, it was now time to start bombarding their penalty area with crosses and high balls. After Jan Vertonghen’s incredible but flukey header provided them a lifeline in the 69th minute, captain Hazard found Fellaini’s head with a delicious cross to make it 2-2 in the 74th. The mini-turnaround was complete.
But there was one final moment of magic left in the game. With Japan admirably (but perhaps a bit naively) pouring forward in search of a winner at the death, Belgium pounced. Had that free-kick by Keisuke Honda gone in (it looked like it would!) the story would have been completely different.
Instead, it resulted in a corner. Thibaut Courtois caught the ball and without a moment’s hesitation set the counterattack rolling – that was all it took. He could have easily caught the ball and ran the clock down for extra time but Belgium wanted the win in regulation time.
Kevin de Bruyne found Thomas Meunier, who in turn cut the ball back for Lukaku. With a moment of inspired genius, Lukaku let the ball through his legs and it was a tap-in for Chadli. Cue: pandemonium among the Belgians, despair among the Japanese.
Test of character
Belgium’s reputation as a talented group has been prevalent long enough for it to become, perhaps, annoying to followers of the Red Devils. The talent has never been in question, but do they have the character and the mental fortitude it takes to win at the biggest stage? A record of six defeats in the last seven knockout games they have played suggested that this was an area of concern.
Irrespective of the opposition, to win a World Cup knockout game from 0-2 with less than 40 minutes left – that speaks volumes of the belief this side possesses. A defeat last night would have meant a painfully similar story for Belgium: Dominate the group stages, and falter at the first hurdle in the knockouts. But Martinez and Co reacted to a tough situation with admirable calm and emerged winners, to live to fight another day. A first quarter-final appearance in 38 years is not to be scoffed at.
They left it late, but they got the job done. And the boost of confidence a win like that could provide is immeasurable. As Martinez put it, last night was not about negatives. Last night was about progression and they achieved it, in dramatic style. On Monday night, after the events of Rostov-on-Don in Russia, Belgium lived up to the nickname they share with Manchester United.
As Sir Alex Ferguson would have himself put it: Football, bloody hell.