There are occasions in our lives that we can never forget because they seem to last an eternity or flash by in seconds. For Belgium, that counterattack against Japan in the dying seconds of the pre-quarterfinals will be one such moment. It will lift them when the times are tough; it will inspire them when the odds are against them; it will light the fire when times are dark. It will — and should be — their beacon.
Belgium — a country with a population of only 11m, with just 34 professional clubs competing across two leagues — has produced a golden generation of footballers. The names roll of our tongues — Hazard, Lukaku, De Bruyne, Kompany, and more. Top quality talent; top drawer talent; talent that would make it to almost any starting XI. But that potential hasn’t exactly borne the fruit expected of it thus far.
At Euro 2016, they were surprisingly defeated 3-1 by a Gareth Bale-inspired Wales, while at the previous FIFA World Cup, an early goal from Gonzalo Higuain accounted for the Red Devils. The quarterfinals have been a stumbling block. But the expectation is there yet again, a major trophy is still missing and in Brazil, they will face their greatest challenge yet.
To many, this is the final before the final; the match that would have been worthy of a final. The eternal favourites vs the potential giants. The world no 2 vs the world no 3. The two highest ranked teams still in the competition.
Born to flair
The Brazilian game is born to flair, all about pace, magic and ginga. Ultra-imaginative. Ultra-creative. A nod to history. Tough to stop if the mood takes them and on evidence of the previous game, it has taken them. But that strength has also been their weakness in the past. Winning a World Cup requires more than just flair. It requires grit — the kind that Belgium showed after being 0-2 down against Japan. Under Tite, however, the feeling is that they are calmer, more focussed, more in control and to their opponents — more formidable.
Brazil enter this game on the back of three straight victories (all by the scoreline of 2-0) and have played 310 minutes without conceding a goal. Success in big tournaments is often built on defence. You can attack all you like, but if you keep conceding — there will be a time when you won’t be able to claw your way back into the game. Tite understands and recognises that. His team understand and recognise that. This is what makes them truly formidable.
Gabriel Jesus, Neymar, Coutinho, Paulinho are all dangerous but the inability to break Brazil’s back four makes them scarier. Concede and you may not have a way back.
The Belgian game is discovering flair. It used to be dour and organised; with a focus on individual marking and a counter-attack mindset but Hazard and De Bruyne ensure it isn’t anymore. Lukaku’s dummy that led to the winner against Japan was further evidence of that. This is a Belgium side that can roll with the best. And that win against Japan was proof of the mental strength required to win big tournaments.
“These two teams are constructed to score and to win matches. Against Brazil, it will not be about ball possession, but what you do with it. That’s what this World Cup is all about,” Martinez told reporters on Wednesday.
“We know what we are capable of but Brazil are the favourites, putting us into a different role. But it’s a dream match for our players – they were born to play in a match like this. Naturally we want to win, but we are not expected to and that is an important difference.”
“If we show the same mentality as we did on Monday, we have a big chance.”
The win against Japan may not have come without a tactical switch. Initially, Belgium thought they would just overpower Japan from a physical stand point but the Blue Samurai refused to budge. They closed down the spaces and gave the Red Devils precious little to play with. But the goals forced Martinez’s hand — he went for size. Fellaini and Chadli spearheaded the charge and got the goals.
Belgium started crossing everything into the box and Japan found the challenge of coping with it to be much more difficult than imagined. The Red Devils are six centimetres taller on average than the Brazilians and an aerial battle might be in order again.
Brazil coach Tite, though, has confidence in his starting XI. The only changes he has made are the ones that were forced upon him. Teams need to grow into big tournaments and the earlier games have allowed Brazil and Neymar to do just that.
Belgium are embracing the spirit of the challenger. Only Germany are allowed to think of it as an equal battle — everyone else is an underdog.
“Brazil are superior to us individually and they can also count on great collective organisation. I think we should not underestimate the stress and nerves such a match could trigger. It could make the difference on Friday,” said Kompany ahead of the game.
Low-key expectations could allow them to play their best and his thoughts may not be shared by everyone in the squad but taking Brazil on is never easy.
Brazil, on the other hand, are feeling confident. They aren’t allowed the luxury of feeling anything but that... imagine the Selecao coming out and saying they are unsure. Nope. It’ll never happen. They have made the quarterfinals of every tournament since 1994 — being here is expected. The players know that too.
“Belgium are very strong physically and technically,” Thiago Silva said. “I think that in all competitions Brazil is the favourite. But we know that’s not enough. We have to work hard and give our best every game if we want to win the title. We will continue to work and rest well because Friday’s game will be even more difficult.”
For now, we can only hope the game lives up to expectations. This could be — and one hopes it is — the start of a great rivalry. This is what the world wants. This is what the World Cup is all about.