Belgium’s golden generation squad suffered their first legitimate scare in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but thanks to goals from substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli, the Red Devils squeezed by a tough Japan side to face Brazil on Friday in the quarterfinals.
Japan honorably fell to Belgium in Monday’s hard-fought round of 16 clash, a 3-2 thriller decided by Nacer Chadli late in injury time. The Japanese side stunned the Red Devils by grabbing two goals just after halftime.
Genki Haraguchi opened the scoring in the 48th minute with a tidy finish into the left side of the goal after he ran in behind the three Belgian center backs, and four minutes later, Takashi Inui broke the hearts of Red Devils fans everywhere with a beautiful strike from distance that Thibaut Courtois barely missed saving.
Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen redeemed himself in the 69th minute for letting Haraguchi have a clean look on goal: the standout defender headed the ball first-time from the left edge of the box and watched it loop over the Japanese defense and keeper into the net to draw one goal back and to give his nation a semblance of hope. Five minutes later, captain Eden Hazard took the ball on the left wing, created space between him and oncoming defenders, and sent in a ball right to the head of Marouane Fellaini, who nodded the ball home with ease to get the Belgians back in the game.
Akira Nishino’s side played an honorable brand of football against one of the hottest teams in the tournament: he had his men attack with purpose and vigor even after they built their 2-0 lead. Unfortunately for the Samurai Blues, their attractive style played a major role in Belgium’s late goal stemming from a counter-attack.
Japan may have thought they won the match when Thibaut Courtois finished off their last attack by snagging an errant ball in the box, but the 26-year-old ‘keeper made a true veteran’s decision. Instead of wasting time and letting the match head into extra time, Courtois rolled the ball to Kevin De Bruyne, who made the first incision in the Japan defense when he charged down the field with the ball. He then found Thomas Meunier dashing down the right flank.
The PSG defender fired the ball across the top of the 18-yard box to Romelu Lukaku, but the big forward ingeniously dummied, leaving the ball for West Brom’s Chadli to fire the ball past Eiji Kawashima to seal the match for Belgium. That dummy will go down in Belgian and world football history as one of the smartest plays by anyone in one of the biggest moments of the tournament.
Belgium did not look nearly as dominant as they did in the group stage, but winning tough matches like these signifies a good team.
Roberto Martinez stuck with the 3-4-3 formation he used in all three group stage matches with his side. Yannick Carrasco played as a left wing-back, and given the fact that he is right-footed and has almost no defensive inclination, he had a less-than-stellar performance against Japan. Martinez elected to start Vincent Kompany over Dedryck Boyata for the first time in this World Cup, which contributed to the collective gaffe by all three center backs for the first Japan goal. The Spanish manager substituted Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli on in the second half, and his choice to use Fellaini as a target man paid dividends as the Belgians chased the Japanese lead.
Japan used a standard 4-2-3-1 formation which involved Inui cutting in from the left side to create space for Galatasaray left-back Yuto Nagatomo. Forward Yuya Osako did his best to run in behind the Belgium defenders, and that strategy led to the first goal of the match. Maya Yoshida held down the back line with some key last-ditch tackles before Martinez’s side opened the floodgates in the final half-hour of the game.
Writer’s Man of the Match: Nacer Chadli
Most of the Belgian attack contributed to their dramatic winner deep in added time, but Chadli wins the Man of the Match award since he had to finish the impressive move. Although it would not have happened without De Bruyne’s slicing run through the center of the pitch, Meunier’s perfect low cross, or Lukaku’s dummy, the West Brom winger takes home the award for his finish and his dynamic dribbling and movement on the left flank.
Martinez needed a new dimension going forward after Japan gained a two-goal lead, and Chadli provided that at the perfect moment, and now his nation will take on Brazil in a clash of the Titans in Kazan on Friday, with each squad eyeing a spot in the 2018 World Cup semifinals.
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