6th July, 2018
Belgium’s golden generation transformed itself from a group of extremely talented individuals who scraped past lowly Japan into a fully functioning Death Star of a team on Friday night as it took down mighty Brazil 2-1 to earn its way to a World Cup semifinal matchup against France.
Playing as if they had completely bought into whatever manager Roberto Martinez was selling, the Red Devils, resplendent in Red, were on it from the first whistle against a Brazil team that was favored not just to win the game but to win the entire tournament. At first, the left side of Brazil’s attack — comprised of Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and fullback/winger Marcelo — looked like it was going to run riot. Brazil had a problem, though. Every single time its lefty trident pushed into Belgium’s box a gigantic open space appeared where it had once been.
Whenever Belgium regained possession it poured through the crack in Brazil’s previously impervious backline like a river finding its way around a boulder. Brazil either didn’t realize what was happening or wasn’t able to adjust, and in the 13th minute, Belgium took the lead when a corner kick rebounded off Fernandinho and into Brazil’s net. One could have been forgiven for thinking that the goal was a fluke. After all, Own Goal now has 11 tallies to its name in this World Cup and it plays for every team. However, 18 minutes later Belgium proved it didn’t need to rely on chance to score. Off a Brazil corner kick, the ball fell to Romelu Lukaku who fended off a bevy of Brazilians, dribbled upfield and then laid the ball off to Kevin De Bruyne who slammed the ball into the bottom corner.
Brazil put up a good fight in the second half and should have had a penalty when a tiring Vincent Kompany sithed Gabriel Jesus down in the box. Feeling the injustice flow through him, Neymar, who always thinks it’s his moment to shine, then tried to win the game all by himself. Neymar is talented enough to pull such a gambit off except for the fact that the entire world knows that he is the boy who cried wolf. It was a shame as well because Brazil’s best player throughout the tournament, Coutinho, had another great game and lofted in a beautiful ball which Renato Augusto headed home in the 76th minute to give Brazil hope. Coutinho himself then had a half-chance which he skied over the bar and Augusto dragged a shot wide which would have tied things up but really, Belgium looked surprisingly assured given the sheer amount of world-class attacking talent coming at them.
Belgium’s solidity came down to a single man: goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. The 26-year-old man mountain had a brilliant game and made one of the prettiest saves of the tournament when he palmed away a Neymar curler in the waning minutes. Now Belgium moves forward to face a French team who dispatched Uruguay with businessman-like efficiency earlier on Friday. France and Belgium, in many ways, are mirror images of each other. They’ve both got fantastic young attackers, defenders who play at top clubs throughout Europe and have goalkeepers who rank in the top 10 for the position.
They also both have coaches who are giant question marks. Although, after Friday’s performance, it sure seems like Martinez has figured something out. This is, after all, the second time he’s made changes to his team that ended up winning huge games at this World Cup.