The World Cup favourites are on their way home, after Belgium pulled off a memorable 2-1 win over Brazil to seal a semi-final with France. A Fernandinho own goal and a fine strike from Kevin De Bruyne were enough to see off the South Americans, despite Renato Augusto setting up a thrilling finish. But how did Roberto Martinez’s men get the better of a Brazil side tipped for the title? We dissect the quarter-final upset…
There was a surprise an hour before kick-off, when it was revealed Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli would be starting. The two midfielders had changed the game against Japan when they were thrown on with Belgium trailing, but their inclusion from the first whistle against Brazil in place of the more attack-minded Yannick Carrasco and Dries Mertens hinted at a change in approach.
Come kick-off there was a further twist, as it became apparent Martinez had swapped his go-to three-at-the-back set-up for a bold 4-3-3, with Romelu Lukaku pushed out to the right flank, Eden Hazard on the left and Kevin De Bruyne through the middle as a false nine.
Those three players were regularly left up the field, giving Belgium a real threat on the counter-attack, while Fellaini protected the defence alongside Chadli and Alex Witsel. The switch also meant chief playmaker De Bruyne was able to play further forward than he did against Japan, where he was often too far from goal to create openings.
After the match, Martinez was keen to heap praise on his players’ enthusiasm in embracing the tactics change. “It’s the execution of the tactics which matters – and the execution was magnificent,” he said. “Players have to be so brave to accept it. In two days they changed their tactical disposition. There was a desire to make it happen.”
That team unity and willingness to work together was underlined by captain Vincent Kompany before the match, when he insisted Belgium would have to work together to overcome a more individually talented Brazil side.
Sharing the goals around
Belgium have had nine different goalscorers at the 2018 World Cup (excluding own goals). Only Italy in 2006 and France in 1982 (10 each) have ever had more in a single tournament.
Romelu Lukaku was a fine example of that commitment in action. The Manchester United man put his personal goal-scoring ambitions to one side and dedicated himself to his task of working the channels and pinning back Brazil’s full-backs. The forward, who once clocked the lowest distance covered figures in a Premier League season, ran himself into the ground for his team-mates, held up the ball with skill and gelled Belgium’s attacking play.
It takes more than just hard work to top this Brazil team, though – and there were some exceptional individual performances in among the teamwork.
De Bruyne – superb throughout – produced a wonderful strike to arrow the ball into the bottom corner after Lukaku had instigated a rapid counter-attack and Marcelo backed off to invite the shot, while Hazard was at his brilliant best, completing 10 dribbles – seven more than any other player – and drawing a game-high seven fouls.
At the other end, Thomas Meunier marshalled Neymar, Toby Alderweireld made 10 clearances and Thibaut Courtois pulled off a stunning save as Belgium held on in the final stages.
Belgium on a roll
Belgium are now unbeaten in 24 games in all competitions (W19 D5).
For all the good work done by this Belgian team, there’s no doubt they had a fair helping of luck throughout the match. Thiago Silva put a sitter against the woodwork and Paulinho scuffed a good chance from another corner within 10 minutes, while Gabriel Jesus was unable to turn in an equaliser from three yards out just moments after Belgium had taken the lead.
There were two penalty appeals from Brazil which went to VAR – with Kompany lucky not to be punished for a sliding tackle on Jesus – before Renato Augusto, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino missed a flurry of late chances to make it 2-2.
Fernandinho’s own goal was an obvious example – the ball ricocheting in off his arm after Kompany’s flick-on – while the absence of Casemiro due to suspension was a huge miss in the middle of the park for Brazil. The defensive midfielder – described as the best in the world by Gilberto Silva – has been Brazil’s top tackler and interceptor in Russia but Fernandinho struggled badly in his place.
Belgium will believe they deserved that rub of the green, though, and coupled with smart tactics, a skilful squad and a group of players committed to the cause, they proved to have too much for Brazil. France have been warned.