Belgium 3 Japan 2
It will go down as a World Cup classic, a wild and chaotic game that will be talked about in years to come, in particular that dramatic moment, with almost the last kick of the evening. Belgium went from one end of the pitch to the other in the blink of an eye and scored the goal that had Thibaut Courtois charging out of his area to embrace Roberto Martínez.
Nacer Chadli, one of two second-half substitutes who helped to swing the balance of this rollercoaster game, coolly converted, sidefooting home to complete a remarkable comeback in which Belgium recovered from two goals down to set up a quarter-final with Brazil in Kazan on Friday. Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini, who also came off the bench, got Belgium's other goals on a night when Japan deserved so much more.
Akira Nishino's side were terrific and their devastation at the end was there for all to see. Genki Haraguchi had given them the lead early in the second half with an arrowed finish and Japan were in dreamland when Takashi Inui scored a brilliant second. Martínez looked to the heavens at that point but it was the Belgium manager's substitutions that turned this game rather than any help from up above. It was breathless stuff.
Disciplined, tireless and rugged in their defending, Japan made life as difficult as possible for Belgium from the outset as they sat deep and snapped into tackles. Belgium had 26 touches in the Japan area in the first half – the most of any team in this World Cup – but registered only two attempts on target. That was the story of the opening 45 minutes.
Eden Hazard showed some nice touches. Dries Mertens threatened on the right and Kevin De Bruyne began to probe from deeper, in that slightly withdrawn role that makes him more of a quarter-back than a playmaker in this Belgium team. Yet that final pass, or that killer touch in front of goal, was missing.
Japan deserve credit in that respect. Maya Yoshida, the Southampton defender, was particularly impressive up against Romelu Lukaku in that opening period. The centre half used his body well to prevent Lukaku from cleanly gathering a low cross from Mertens that skidded into the six-yard box and he put his body on the line again and again.
That passage of play was symptomatic of a frustrating first half for Belgium. Hazard, sprinting onto a pass from Mertens, took one touch too many and by the time he pulled the trigger, just inside the Japan area, Yoshida got across to block. De Bruyne, set up by Mertens, failed to cleanly connect on the edge of the area and Hazard, shooting from distance, saw his effort beaten away by Eiji Kawashima. It was possession without penetration.
Japan had threatened sporadically prior to the interval. Shinji Kagawa, so graceful in the No 10 role throughout, drilled a low show wide after only 60 seconds, following a mistake by the disappointing Yannick Carrasco, and there was an almost an embarrassing moment for Courtois at the other end of the half, when the goalkeeper allowed Yuya Osako's toe-poke to slip through his legs.
What followed, though, was extraordinary as Japan scored twice in quick succession. The first was a breakaway as Japan, seizing possession deep inside their own half, carved Belgium open. Kagawa’s pass inside Vertonghen was sublime, teasing the central defender into thinking he could intercept. Haraguchi, sprinting clear on Vertonghen’s outside, ran onto the ball and drilled a wonderfully-placed angled shot across Courtois.
Now the game had come alive. Belgium almost equalised immediately. Hazard, set up by Mertens, stroked a first-time shot from 12 yards that cannoned off the post. That felt like a potential turning point a few minutes later, when Japan scored again. Kompany, starting a tournament game for the first time since the last World Cup, tried to head clear but the ball fell to Kagawa, who fed Inui. In space and with Axel Witsel far too slow to close him down, Inui accepted the invitation to shoot and curled an exquisite shot that beat the despairing dive of Courtois. Martinez looked shell-shocked.
Lukaku’s glancing header from Thomas Meunier’s cross slid agonisingly wide of the post shortly afterwards but Martinez had seen enough. Fellaini and Chadli replaced Carrasco and Mertens in what felt like a desperate roll of the dice. It worked, too, albeit not before Japan had come close to scoring a third, when Courtois stuck out a boot to repel Hiroki Sakai’s low centre.
Then Vertonghen’s looping header, from such an acute angle, sailed over Kawashima and dropped inside the far post after Japan had made a mess of trying to clear De Bruyne’s corner. Now Belgium had real hope. Five minutes later they were level.
Hazard, twisting and turning on the left, floated over a cross that Fellaini, towering above Makoto Hasebe, headed home emphatically. Chances came and went at both ends in a frantic finale – Kawashima made a superb double save, and Witsel nearly put through his own net – before that remarkable counter-attack that started with Courtois releasing De Bryune and ended with Chadli scoring so dramatically.
BELGIUM: Courtois; Alderweireld, Kompany,Vertonghen; Meunier, De Bruyne,Witsel, Carrasco (Chadli, 65 mins); Mertens (Fellaini, 65 mins), Lukaku, Eden Hazard.
JAPAN: Kawashima; H Sakai, Yoshida, Shoji, Nagatomo; Hasebe, Shibasaki (Yamaguchi, 81 mins); Haraguchi (Honda, 81 mins), Kagawa, Inui; Osako. Booked: Shibasaki.
Referee: Malang Diedhiou (Senegal).
– Guardian service