It’s a World Cup, but it looks like a European Championship by now. Belgium eliminated the last representative from South America last night, the most noble of all, beating Brazil 2-1 in Kazan. The Belgians benefited from an own goal by Fernandinho, and doubled their lead with Kevin De Bruyne in the first half already, before Renato Augusto could vainly reduce the gap for the Selecao.
For coach Roberto Martinez’s selection, this is the first qualification into a World Cup Semi Final since 1986, and the zenith for a formidable generation of players which were patiently cultivated in the Kingdom of Flanders and Wallonia. Belgium literally disappeared from the geography of international football for 10 years, failing to qualify for any major tournament between 2003 and 2013. In view of what seen in the recent years, it would seem they were silently rebuilding their football movement, waiting for the right moment to re-enter the world stage from the main entrance.
Spanish coach Martinez added the finishing touch, choosing a quality assistant manager like Thierry Henry to foster his strikers’ killer instinct, and always putting the group ahead of the single – as exemplified by his unpopular decision to leave home a player like Radja Nainggolan. He was smart enough to operate the right substitutions when his team were shockingly being pounded by Japan, and the courage of promoting Marouane Fellaini and Nader Chadli as starters for the game with Brazil, leaving Dries Mertens on the bench, and advancing Kevin De Bruyne’s from the midfield to the attacking line.
Belgium’s win over one of the less talented Brazilian selections in the last decades came as a surprise only to those who didn’t follow the Belgians’ continuous evolution, as well as Brazil’s longstanding identity crisis, which started four years ago with the Mineirazo and seems far from being solved. Their global star Neymar, who was supposed to be the leader and ambassador of futbol, rather spent more time diving and writhing in pain (!) with his reiterated simulations, culminating yesterday with two theatrical requests for penalty. Referee Milorad Mazic was smarter than that.
Coach Tite wasn’t helped either by the absence of disqualified Casemiro – as Real Madrid’s midfielder was a solid bastion placed ahead of his defensive line, and could have been his ace in the hole in a tricky match, with his powerful long range shots. Tite’s choice to replace him was, as expected, Fernandinho from Manchester City, whom fatally turned to be a calamity for his side, deflecting into his own goal a corner by Eden Hazard in the 13th minute for what was Brazil’s second own goal only in their World Cup history.
Brazil had started strong, with Thiago Silva showing once again how dangerous he can be when he advances from the back line, hitting the post with a header in the 4th minute. The Selecao pressured hard, but Belgium gave the impression they could be lethal whenever they showed up around Alisson’s area: In the 20th minute, Romelu Lukaku dashed past a dazed Miranda, and was closed by the Brazilian defense just before he could shoot from no distance.
The Manchester United striker was also present in the action of Belgium’s second goal, as he received a ball recovered by Fellaini in his defensive third, and galloped through the Brazilian lines to serve Kevin De Bruyne. The blonde Citizen, so far among the less impressive stars in Belgium’s collection, answered present to the calling, and beat Alisson for the second time with a merciless sharp shot from the right corner of the box.
Thibaut Courtois preserved Belgium’s precious double lead with a sequence of saves not particularly hard, but pretty useful for frustrating and demotivating the Brazilians. Coach Tite rotated his striking solutions, sending in Roberto Firmino in place of Wilian at half time, and then adding Douglas Costa, and eventually Renato Augusto. But the Selecao seemed to be stubbornly looking for a penalty, even more than for a goal.
Neymar’s simulations make no news anymore. O Ney went for a dive in the box twice, and twice referee Mazic invited him to stand up and keep playing. Vincent Kompany’s alleged foul on Gabriel Jesus left a few more doubts, with the Belgian defender’s leg actually hitting the Brazilian, but with the ball already past the end line. Mazic initially ruled it a penalty, but a silent check with the VAR suggested him to change his decision.
Brazil eventually found a goal in minute 76, as Philippe Coutinho – the best man from the Selecao seen in Russia – served substitute Renato Augusto with a cross from the left: Props to Brazil’s number 8, who plays in China with Beijing Guoan, for dashing between Kompany and Jan Vertonghen, and hitting the ball with a perfectly-timed header for Brazil’s 1-2.
With 14 minutes to go, the Belgians’ legs started to shake for the first time, and the South Americans smelled blood: Renato Augusto wasted an easy chance this time. Then, in the 94th minute, Neymar finally did what he is supposed to do, and can do – playing football – and produced a wonderful bend shot that called Courtois to a super save. The Belgian goalie’s exploit maintained the score unchanged, and ultimately promoted Belgium among the Top 4 teams of World Cup 2018.
Next stop for coach Martinez’s side is a francophone Semi Final against France, to be played on July 10 in Saint Petersburg. For Brazil, on the other hand, it’s time to swallow another disappointing World Cup campaign, the fourth one since their last triumph in 2002, when they had also eliminated Belgium on their way to the title: Les Diables Rouges had lost that infamous Round of 16 match, after a clearly valid goal by Marc Wilmots was disallowed by the referee with the score still set to 0-0. Revenge is best served chilled, even in football.
July 6, 2018 – World Cup Quarter Finals
SCORERS: 13′ Fernandinho (Br, o.g.), 31′ De Bruyne (Be), 76′ Renato Augusto (Br)
|BRAZIL (4-2-3-1): Alisson; Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Fernandinho, Paulinho (73′ Renato Augusto); Willian (46′ Firmino), Coutinho, Neymar; Gabriel Jesus (58’Douglas Costa) (Ederson, Cassio, Pedro Geromel, Casemiro, Filipe Luis, Marquinhos, Danilo, Fred, Taison) Coach: Tite|
|BELGIUM (3-4-3): Courtois; Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, Fellaini, Witsel, Chadli (83′ Vermaelen); De Bruyne, Lukaku (87′ Tielemans), E. Hazard (Mignolet, Casteels, Carrasco, Mertens, T. Hazard, Januzaj, Dembélé, Boyata, Batshuayi, Dendoncker) Coach: Martinez|
REFEREE: Mazic (Serbia)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Fernandinho, Fagner (Br), Alderweireld, Meunier (Be)
Click below to relive some of Brazil and Belgium’s previous games at World Cup 2018: