Overconfidence could have costed much to Belgium, which snatched a last-minute 3-2 win over Japan in a wonderful Round of 16 game played in Rostov. The Belgians should admit it to themselves: Before even stepping foot on the pitch, they were already thinking about the possible stellar Quarter Final with Brazil. And so, they had to receive two violent slaps from the Samurais that really put them with their back against the wall, before they would stop contemplating themselves, and work out a plan to win their current game first.
They managed to do so in the end, completing a comeback that would have made for a great Captain Tsubasa episode. They resorted to their talent, and benefited from a couple of timely substitutions by their coach Roberto Martinez. Like those lazy gifted students who study only the night before a test, and still pass it with top grades. Like one of those school bully who in the end wins because…well, because he is just stronger, and that’s it.
The brave Japanese held their own against the most talented Belgians, stung twice using a foil rather than a katana, but ultimately had to succumb to the goals by Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini, and Nacer Chadli, after Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui had painted their Great Illusion. For the Rising Sun, Quarter Finals remain a taboo. But how close they went to them this time! And, gentleman, what a player Shinji Kagawa is!
After conceding a day off to most of his starters during the last Group Stage match, coach Martinez recovered his usual lineup, with the addition of the experienced Vincent Kompany in his three-man defense. His striking force was fearsome even when you read their names on paper: Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, and Dries Mertens – but oddly enough, none of them ended up scoring las night. Japanese coach Akira Nishino knew that he couldn’t face such an overflow of talent openly, and resorted to a more prudent 4-5-1, with Yuya Osako as lone striker, supported by Borussia Dortmund’s playmaker Kagawa.
Les Diables Rouges started aggressively, but Nishino’s defensive line held well. Belgium’s top scorer Lukaku was the most dangerous, but Japan’s number 22 Maya Yoshida defended like a veteran on him, distinguishing himself for a great clearance in the 24th minute. Hazard tried from afar, calling goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima to action two minutes later, then Kompany narrowly failed to convert a cross from the left immediately after. With Japan to the ropes, the feeling was that Belgium were going to open a breach into the Asian wall sooner or later, still the score at half time was still set to 0-0.
Instead, the Blue Samurais shocked the Rostov Arena punishing their opponents with the most classical of counterattacks, three minutes after the break. Genki Haraguchi caught a perfect filtering pass, taking advantage of a missed intervention by Jan Vertonghen, to penetrate Belgium’s area and beat Thibaut Courtois with a sharp diagonal shot.
Not even the time to put the ball back on the kick-off spot, that Eden Hazard was already on the other side of the pitch, shaking Kawashima’s left post with a furious shot from out of the box. Belgium’s reaction was indeed immediate, but then midfielder Takashi Inui, an average player from Spanish Segunda División club Eibar, found the shot that could have been worth a career, ripping Courtois’ net for the second time. 51 minutes had passed, the Belgians were down 0-2, and Japan with a foot and a half into the Quarter Finals…
Thomas Meunier’s cross from the right served a good chance to Lukaku, whose header missed the target by inches, and that’s when coach Roberto Martinez decided he had had enough. In the 64th minute, he pulled out Dries Mertens and an embarrassing Yannick Carrasco, sending in Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli: They would both end up scoring a goal in Belgium’s fantastic comeback, so full credit to the Spanish coach for coming up with the right substitutions.
Yoshida continued to fight like a lion, and closed again on Lukaku, but just one minute later Lady Luck gave a big hand to the Europeans. Vertonghen attempted a cross from the left side, probably willing to serve somebody in the box, but the ball took an awkward effect and plummeted into Kawashima’s goal, much to the dismay of the Japanese goalie.
Gen Shoji sacrificed himself to block with his body a shot by Kevin De Bruyne, but no Japanese could do anything two minutes later, when a fleeting Hazard freed himself in the box, and crossed to find Fellaini’s powerful header that left no chance to Kawashima. Belgium moved to 2-2 in the space of five minutes, but Coach Nishino still believed in the possibility for his side to pull it out, and imitated his colleague Martinez with a double change: Hotaru Yamaguchi, and former Milan’s midfielder Keisuke Honda were sent in for the final assault.
It was the experienced platinum-haired number 4 to prove the most dangerous for his side, forcing a gasping Belgian defense to neutralize his offense from a perfect pass by Shinji Kagawa, and then calling Courtois to dive on his right to deflect a powerful shot of his in the 93rd minute. On the other side, Eiji Kawashima kept his side afloat, saving twice from Lukaku and Chadli in the same action, and then again from a violent long range shot by Vertonghen – well determined to redeem himself after the mistake that had caused Japan’s 1-0.
Extra time looked like the perfect continuation for a match that was set on fire during the second half, but football is a cruel, merciless game. From Japan pushing hard, and gaining a corner kick in the very last stoppage time minute, originated the goal that suddenly catapulted the Belgians forward, and sent the Japanese into despair. Courtois blocked the ball from a badly-kicked corner, and triggered a fast-lightning counterattack that devoured Japan’s half side with three passes. Kevin De Bruyne put the ball in from the right, Lukaku let it slide, and 29-year-old WBA midfielder Nacer Chadli pushed it past Kawashima with the energy and freshness of his 25 minutes only played.
Harakiri Japan, while Martinez and his troops could breathe a sigh of relief, and maybe learn a lesson: In World Cup 2018, nobody – nobody – should feel overconfident, if they don’t give 100% of what they have. And that could not even be enough, against a Brazilian side that has been growing game after game.
July 2, 2018 – World Cup Round of 16
SCORERS: 48′ Haraguchi (J), 52′ Inui (J), 69′ Vertonghen (B), 74′ Fellaini (B), 94′ Chadli (B)
|BELGIUM (3-4-3): Courtois; Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, De Bruyne, Witsel, Carrasco (65′ Chadli); Mertens (65′ Fellaini), Lukaku, E. Hazard (Mignolet, Casteels, Vermaelen, Boyata, Dembélé, Tielemans, Januzaj, Dendoncker, T. Hazard, Batshuayi) Coach: Martinez|
|JAPAN (4-2-3-1): Kawashima; H. Sakai, Yoshida, Shoji, Nagatomo; Hasebe, Shibasaki (81′ Yamaguchi); Haraguchi (81′ Honda), Kagawa, Inui; Osako (Higashiguchi, Nakamura, G. Sakai, Endo, Ueda, Makino, Usami, Oshima, Muto, Okazaki) Coach: Nishino.|
REFEREE: Diedhiou (Senegal)
NOTES: Yellow Card: Shibasaki (J)