KAZAN, Russia — Three points on Belgium’s 2-1 win vs. Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals.
1. Belgium through after last-eight thriller
Belgium will play a World Cup semifinal for the first time since 1986 and after this brilliant dismissal of Brazil, they can be highly fancied to go all the way. Fernandinho’s own goal and a sensational counter-attacking strike from Kevin De Bruyne put them two goals up in the first half and they survived a barrage after the break, which included a goal by Renato Augusto, to run out deserving winners in a superb knockout game.
Brazil could have scored twice in the opening 10 minutes and both chances arose from corners. Thiago Silva was surprised when Miranda flicked on and, in front of goal, the ball bounced off his thigh and on to the post. Shortly afterwards the ball found its way to an unmarked Paulinho who, similarly prepared, scuffed his short badly.
When the Selecao made a third error from a set piece, it cost them even more dearly. Eden Hazard’s whipped corner from the right looked relatively harmless but Fernandinho, mistiming his jump, diverted into his own net and now Brazil had an unfamiliar problem.
This was already a thrilling game, wide open and full of half-chances, play swinging from end to end in basketball fashion. Belgium had threatened an opening once or twice and then, just after the half-hour, they cut Brazil apart brilliantly. It was a devastating surge through the middle from Romelu Lukaku that created the second goal; his pass right for De Bruyne was inch-perfect and the 20-yard finish, angled across Alisson, was impossibly crisp.
Tite’s side could not muster any response before half time but exerted sustained pressure after the break. Gabriel Jesus had a good shout for a penalty after being challenged by Vincent Kompany in the area; referee Milorad Mazic judged the ball to have already crossed the byline but replays showed Belgium may have been fortunate. Still they came forwards and by the time Augusto headed home with 14 minutes left, they deserved a goal.
And the game deserved the breathless closing stages that ensured. Paulinho burst into the box and shot wide; Douglas Costa fired over from a fine position; balls flashed across goal and only Brazil will know how they did not contrive an equaliser. At the very end, Courtois tipped over brilliantly from Neymar; it did not come and they depart with regret.
2. Kings of the counter-attack
Had Brazil failed to heed a clear warning or are Belgium, in this counter-attacking form, just too good? At 1-0, when Marouane Fellaini headed an aimless Neymar corner away from the Belgium penalty area, there were still 100 yards between most red shirts and Alisson in the Brazil goal.
But what followed was a counter on a par with that sensational winning strike against Japan, Lukaku and De Bruyne sweeping away to score another contender for goal of the tournament, and if it highlighted some naivety from Brazil it also showed that Belgium are as good an attacking force as international football has witnessed in years.
Is there a more perfect blend of pace, power, poise, technique and finishing ability than that of De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku? All three possess elements of each attribute and they were on show repeatedly here.
Hazard, brilliant all game, twisted Brazil right-back Fagner inside out while Lukaku’s first-half performance was as good as anything he has produced in his career. He did not score but it did not matter; this was as physically and technically dominant a showing as he has ever produced and, in this form, the Manchester United striker raises the level of everyone around him.
On first glance, Roberto Martinez’s lineup had appeared something of a gamble. Fielding Fellaini and Nacer Chadli from the start felt like an early recourse to the “Plan B” that had accounted to Japan after long periods of toil from the first string.
In fact, it worked perfectly; the physical capabilities of both players helped allow those further forward to express themselves and it was, in fact, through a corner won by Fellaini that Belgium broke the deadlock.
This was a triumph of planning from Martinez and of scintillating football from his players; if they had a little luck towards the end then it was well earned, and they will take some stopping now.
3. Brazil and Neymar tumble out
The temptation had been to assume that Brazil, clear tournament favourites going into this tie, would have too much nous for talented but flighty opponents. Instead they were beaten comprehensively, plunged into chaos by the waves of breaking red shirts that exposed their defence time and again during the first half.
It briefly brought to mind their capitulation against Germany in Belo Horizonte four years ago and, while this outcome was not remotely as dramatic, it pointed to a series of weaknesses that only manifest themselves when top-quality opponents set about them at a breakneck tempo.
Here they were eviscerated by Belgium’s front three, Miranda having a particularly torrid time against the brilliant Lukaku. Their backline was pulled apart repeatedly and, given the lack of capable protection provided by Fernandinho and Paulinho, the thought occurred that they missed the suspended Casemiro more than anyone had expected.
Further forward they gave Courtois plenty to do but rarely from clear opportunities. Philippe Coutinho would cut inside and let fly; Neymar, Willian or Jesus would fire in an angled cross-shot from wide. There were parries, tips away, shots hurriedly snatched off target, but there was precious little poise despite Belgium suggesting early on that, when pressed, they might lack defensive composure.
By the time Augusto pulled one back and Brazil threw the kitchen sink at Belgium, it was too late. Neymar came within millimetres of a remarkable late salvage act in forcing that stupendous injury-time stop from Courtois but, in truth, he did not do enough here, finding himself on the periphery in the first half and failing to leave defenders trailing as he had against Mexico.
He must surely have held hope of cementing his star status by lifting the World Cup; in a tournament with no tolerance of the cult of the individual, though, he crashes out and so does a Brazil team that, in the end, was simply not quite as good as its opponents. – Source: ESPN