This World Cup must have taken some acting lessons in advance of it beginning because the drama we have gone through this summer seems like it has been second to none. Not that Japan will appreciate the theatrical flourishes. They were big underdogs in advance of this tie and even though they wouldn’t have approved of the ending, they were integral to a story that not only wowed watchers the world over but also served to shine a light on the myriad of problems that Belgium have running through their ranks; problems that will split them apart at the seam when put under greater pressure by a better team. If there are any teams with bigger hearts than Japan left in the tournament, however, remains to be seen.
Brazil did what Brazil have done this tournament and began slowly. Much of this had to do with Mexico’s furious start but this Brazil team doesn’t wilt under pressure like previous versions. They’ve got the flash up front, certainly, but there’s a structure throughout which allows Neymar to do his thing without sacrificing their defensive solidity; this Brazil team have conceded just a single goal en route to the quarter-finals and they don’t look like they’ll give up them up easy. It’s amazing what can happen when David Luiz is dropped from the team.
Brazil 2 – 0 Mexico
Mexico held a rather unfortunate record coming into this game of having featured in the Round of 16 each tournament since 1994 but not having progressed beyond. Lucky for them it was only Brazil that stood in the way of them breaking that curse. In their favour, Mexico didn’t have to deal with the buccaneering runs of Marcelo down the flanks so Felipe Luiz filled in. Similarly, the other full-back berth was taken up by the 29-year-old Fagner, a player based domestically in Brazil with less than 10 caps to his name. Mexico would surely view the international novice as a weak point to attack.
Indeed they did and for the opening part of the game Mexico launched attack after attack, out-working Brazil and never letting them settle; they exuded a sense of adventure to a much greater extent than their counterparts. To paraphrase the old British colloquialism, Brazil didn’t like it up ‘em. But on 25 minutes, Brazil turned on the style through that man Neymar. It was the trigger for a concerted attack on Mexico’s penalty area which they did well to weather. Was it the case that Brazil were just biding their time? Rope-a-doping Mexico into a false sense of security? Certainly, Mexico were noticeably cagier in their forays forward although it didn’t bottle their attacking spirit entirely. It did, however, breath life into Brazil’s nascent start and they began to exploit the spaces that Mexico were leaving.
For the rest of the half, it was all Brazil. They took what Mexico threw at them, shrugged, and started working their way up the gears, shackling Mexico and knocking the rhythm from them entirely. Mexico’s work rate was still top notch defensively but going into half-time, Brazil had certainly engineered some momentum for themselves; things were only going to get tougher for Mexico.
And tougher it got for them just five minutes into the second half. After Neymar laid off to Willian with a nonchalant back heel, the man with the big hair charged into the box and whipped the ball across the front of Mexico’s goal and it was Neymar himself who finished off the move, sliding it home from a couple of yards out. Mexico responded with an attacking substitute, knowing that their World Cup dream was hanging by a thread but they were struggling and leaving themselves too open at the back.
Willian was far more active in the second half and was causing Mexico huge problems with his pace. Neymar was the prime beneficiary of these surging runs and between the two, they were causing Mexico no end of trouble. Brazil operated without a huge degree of control in the second half but they didn’t really need to. In the absence of any concerted threat from Mexico’s top third, Brazil could sit and soak before attacking at will. They rarely looked ruffled, apart from the frequent fouls inflicted upon them and with Mexico becoming increasingly anxious and frantic, they took advantage yet again. Neymar beat the offside trap and drove into to the Mexico box before toe-poking it towards goal. Ochoa, who had an outstanding game for Mexico between the sticks, managed to get his outstretched leg to it but only succeeded in deflecting the ball into the path of the late substitute, Firmino, and that was pretty much that for Mexico.
As infuriating as he was and usually is, Neymar was also excellent in this outing and probably had the best game of his tournament so far. It was another 90 minutes under his belt and that is a big positive for Brazil going into the quarter-final and possibly beyond as he will be key if they hope to win. Speaking of the quarter-final, Brazil will be without Casemiro as he picked up his second yellow card of the tournament. They have an excellent replacement in the shape of Fernandinho but he will be a loss. Sadly for Mexico, this was the seventh consecutive exit in the Round of 16. They will always have their opening win against Germany to look back on with some pride but, opening 20 minutes aside, they just didn’t have enough quality when and where it was needed most against a well-structured and confident Brazil side.
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Belgium 3-2 Japan
Japan started the tie in which they were rank outsiders in a very positive frame of mind, pressing high on Belgium and keeping them in their own half at the beginning. They took a lot of flak for their performance in the closing stages of their game with Poland when, in an attempt to progress at the expense of Senegal through the fair play rule, they resorted to a style of play that was far from fair so perhaps this was their attempt at redress. Whether it was or was not, they showed little fear in the face of superior opposition and didn’t let Belgium settle at all.
It took a full 15 minutes before Belgium managed to gain a foothold in the game but consecutive corners both ended up with an isolated Vincent Kompany and the big man was unable to make much of them. However, this heralded the start of a helter-skelter half an hour of attacking football. Belgium had most of the ball and looked dangerous but Japan’s ‘keeper wasn’t overly busy on the whole. The European side had nine scoring attempts in the first half but only one was on target. They had been extremely positive and it looked for all the world that they would score but Japan were throwing their bodies at everything, their commitment to the cause unquestioned. Going in at the break, it was honours-even and both managers were probably happy with what they had seen.
Japan’s manager would have been ecstatic just two minutes into the second half. A beautiful through ball was laid on for Genki Haraguchi, beyond the retreating Jan Vertonghen. Haraguchi took it one touch to the right and it looked for all the world as if he had gone too far but his shot was beautifully taken and he struck it to the inside of the far post beyond Thibaut Courtois. Incredibly, Japan had taken the lead but it was to get even more amazing when, three minutes later, Takashi Inui was given as much time and space as he wanted by Belgium’s unworried defence before he let loose from 25 yards out, smashing it beyond a traumatised Courtois. It bode well for the rest of the half.
Following a Belgium corner, Japan were unable to clear and Jan Vertonghen, from a position a handful of yards from the goal line, attempted to head it back across the area. He instead misdirected it and it looped over the ‘keeper and into the far corner beyond the reach and imagination of everyone – Belgium were back in it. Five minutes later and substitute, Marouane Fellaini, the “remarkable nuisance” did what he has done so often in his career and rose above everyone in the box to head it home. All of sudden, Belgium were level and back in it.
If anything, the remaining quarter of an hour got even crazier as the combination of heat, exhaustion and unrelenting attacks took their toll on Japan but still they held firm in the face on the red wave. Not only did they hold firm, they launched a couple of dangerous attacks of their own with Keisuke Honda having a long-range free-kick pushed just wide on 93 minutes. It was Honda who took the resultant corner but, for reasons perhaps best known only to himself, he decided to swing it in rather than run the clock down for the full-time whistle.
The blood must have been up in him and his teammates because he whipped in the corner only for Courtois to collect it. He hadn’t been impressive during the game but the ‘keeper’s next move was incisive. He rolled the ball beautifully into the path of the breaking Kevin de Bruyne who charged up the middle into the space vacated by the Japanese – all of a sudden, Japan were in dire straits. De Bruyne pushed the ball into the path of Thomas Meunier who then slid it across the penalty area. Romelu Lukaku, who was quiet throughout, deftly stepped over the ball and the onrushing Nacer Chadli side-footed it home.
Belgium’s third goal was scored 93 minutes and 42 seconds into the game, the ref blew it up on 94. Japan, valiant and unbowed throughout, had the heart ripped from them in a cruel, soul-destroying way. Thanks to that ill-considered final corner, there may always be lingering thoughts of ‘what might have been’; it might be a scar that never heals for some of them. Belgium took their place in the quarter-finals, a draw against Brazil their reward for their toils. There are massive issues they need to address, however. They didn’t play as a team and there appears to be a worrying lack of harmony between Eden Hazard and de Bruyne. If they don’t go some way to resolving these sizeable problems, Brazil will surely account for them.
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