Just like that, after surviving a nerve-wracking second half that featured an all-out assault from a desperate Brazilian side, Belgium registered arguably their greatest international victory.
Flattering to deceive, a mirror image of England’s “golden generation” from the mid-2000s, great at their respective clubs but paupers in red, were some of the disparaging remarks used against this talent-rich Belgium side.
The Red Devils’s critics had good reason too. Ever since they stormed to the surface as a potential powerhouse, their detractors have been on the front foot. A tame loss to Argentina in the quarter-finals in the 2014 World Cup was followed by a shocking defeat to an Aaron Ramsey and Hal Robson-Kanu-inspired Wales in Euro 2016 at the same stage.
Much water has flown under the bridge since then that fated night in Lille. Out went Marc Wilmots and in came Roberto Martinez, a surprise move as the Spaniard had little experience managing a club expected win and defend titles. The backroom shake-up continued with France and Arsenal legend Thierry Henry entering the fray as an assistant to the former Swansea, Wigan, and Everton manager.
Martinez didn’t enjoy the best start either. His side was outclassed by Julen Lopetegui’s Spain in a friendly on debut, and walked off into the tunnel with boos ringing loudly around the Brussels stadium.
Belgium were bit of a headless chicken at time: a collection of talented individuals but little know-how of how to bring out their best when it counted.
The deadly trio
Enter Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, and Kevin de Bruyne. Two years ago, only Hazard – now the captain of the side – had made a mark in club football. Lukaku was seen as a powerhouse who was ready to explode on the big stage, but his big-ticket move had not arrived. De Bruyne had breathed new life in his career with a timely move to German club Wolfsburg, and at various stages, showed he could rip defences apart with his vision.
Strangely, two years earlier, only Hazard had started against Argentina. De Bruyne was not even on the substitutes bench. Despite being a more complete side on paper, Wilmots’s Belgium comfortably came out second best against Lionel Messi and Co.
Freezing and being out-thought by a well-driven opponent, worryingly, became somewhat of a recurring theme. Before alarmingly losing their wheels against Wales, Belgium were also outclassed by Antonio Conte’s Italy in the group stages.
Lukaku, in particular, was culpable of making a mess of two good opportunities in that game. Cut to 2018, that is far from the case despite earning a fair amount of flak for falling short against the Premier League big guns while turning out for Manchester United last season.
The statuesque striker has showed that he is much more than just a big target man. The last last two games have come as a timely reminder to his critics, who “want me to fail for Belgium”, according to Lukaku .
His presence of mind in the dying seconds of the game was immaculate, letting the ball roll to Nacer Chadli to strike a last-gasp winner against Japan. That match was a litmus-test to Belgium’s character after going 0-2 in the second half.
Against the mighty Brazilians, he was a human wrecking ball, using his size advantage to good effect and flattening his opponents at will. Never rooted to one particular area of the pitch and a willing participant to carry the ball out on the break, the 25-year-old might have left a few psychological scars on Marcelo, Miranda, and Fernandinho.
Lukaku’s brute force joined hands with the trickery and skill of Hazard and the incisiveness of De Bruyne. The Chelsea winger completed a record number of completed dribbles and man-of-the-match De Bruyne landed the killer blow with a thumping strike that he has now made a habit of producing.
While Neymar and Co swarmed the Belgium area in numbers to land the equaliser, De Bruyne was slicing the Selecao backline open on the counter-attack.
“I wanted to be the best footballer in Belgian history. That was my goal. Not good. Not great. The best,” said Lukaku about his childhood dream. He could well have another decade of football left in him, and is already his country’s highest goal-scorer.
From being one of the many creative outlets in 2014, Hazard is looked up to as the man who leads the attacking line with his quiet, no-nonsense personality. De Bruyne was overshadowed by the marauding displays of Lukaku and Hazard in the group stages before sending Brazil out of the World Cup.
The once directionless side now stand on the cusp of going one better than ones from 1986, the only time they reached the last-four.
Henry now grapples with a bizzare conundrum as he plots the downfall of his country of birth. “I think Thierry deserves huge credit. He has been working really well with Rom [Lukaku],” Martinez said. The Henry-effect has had a telling impact. Just look at the amount of goals Belgium have scored in the recent past.
In the qualifiers, they were the joint top-scorers with 43 goals. The build-up to Russia also saw Martinez’s side plunder eight goals in one game. They are top-scorers in the ongoing World Cup and who knows, the sheer weight of their goalscoring prowess can thrust them towards the biggest prize in world football.
When that happens, one can be assured that De Bruyne, Hazard or Lukaku will be in the thick of action. High-flying France, be warned.