Brazil left stunned as Belgium’s golden generation come of age
Roberto Martinez’s side deliver fine counter-attacking display to reach last-four
Roberto Martinez seemed unsure himself before this game whether his Belgium side had the know-how and self-belief to win a World Cup. But in beating Brazil his side took by far its biggest step so far towards the major title they have been tipped to win for years.
There were times when they struck at their opponents on the break and looked the better side, others when they had to ride their luck a little to hang on to their advantage. But, an ability to win whatever way you have to is not at all a bad trait to show at this stage of any tournament. It is certainly not one that this Belgium side has been associated with in recent years.
“We created a lot of opportunities and I don’t think they really knew what they had to do,” said Kevin De Bruyne, scorer of one of the goals and winner of the Man of the Match award afterwards. “I think in the second-half they changed things, but even then we had chances and towards the end we could have scored again.The whole team fought throughout the 90 minutes to win this match and we deserved it.
“Now we go forward to France. They are an extraordinary team but you are not going to meet poor opponents in the semi-finals of a World Cup. We will do everything that we have to do, physically and mentally, to win that game and we hope to give the people who have travelled to support us as well as those back home more good news.”
Martinez said that his side had won a tactical victory and after the way the changes he had made paid off, it was hard to begrudge the Spaniard the share of the credit that he was clearly claiming. “We were 2-0 up but Brazil need maybe 30 seconds to score a first goal and maybe 20 more to score a second but we showed experience, calmness and a belief that we could beat them. That is probably what I am most proud of tonight. This generation is special and it is time to see what they can do now.”
Though they always posed a threat themselves, over the course of the second half they actually conceded a lot of chances but they will not mind that. The five-times world champions would have expected to convert them and win. Instead they went the same way as Germany and Argentina, in the very same ground and with no more cause for complaint.
Four years ago Brazil’s defence crumbled as they were humiliated on home soil. This was an altogether different type of defeat but their flaws were again ruthlessly exposed. Two goals down, they simply didn’t have what it took to save themselves with Neymar, Paulinho, Philippe Coutinho and Douglas Costa all passing up opportunities to score the equaliser they required.
Having been gifted an early lead by a Fernandinho own goal, then doubling their advantage through De Bruyne, there were times when the Belgians stood really strong in defence and Thibaut Courtois had to make some very important saves. When they broke, though, they had shown their opponents up with neither of Tite’s holding midfielders, Paulinho and Fernandinho, capable of containing De Bruyne or Eden Hazard in anything the way that was needed if Brazil were to exert real control in the game and look secure.
Brazil started brightly should have been two up themselves in the opening stages as the Belgian defence struggled to settle into things but the ball wouldn’t quite fall for the South Americans and their misfortune was quickly compounded by the own-goal.
Brazil had problems in a few departments, though. Up front, their attack struggled - not combining in the way they would have hoped to open their determined and well organised opponents up.
Marcelo’s return was one of the few positives in that regard with the left-back providing a threat with a succession of crosses from wide on the left, one of which Gabriel Jesus should probably have headed home. However the Real Madrid defender looked a liability when his side were on the back foot, and for the second Belgian goal he was guilty of trying too hard to show De Bruyne outside while he was also showing just a fraction too much of the bottom left corner.
The Belgian defence coped better with their workload. Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Meunier produced outstandingly disciplined performances to contain Neymar and Willian, while Vincent Kompany repeatedly dug things out when required to in the very heart of a densely packed area.
Renato Augusto provided renewed hope with a fine headed goal after 76 minutes and Brazil had two penalty claims in the second-half with Neymar’s easily dismissed and Jesus’s looking to have at least a little more merit. After surviving a sustained period of pressure the Belgians might have had a third when Romelu Lukaku rounded off a generally disappointing performance with a poor touch that led to a chance being wasted.
It did not matter, though and Martinez’s side became the first Belgian team to make the last four of a World Cup since Jan Ceulemans and co did it back in 1986.
On that occasion it took the eventual champions to halt their progress and the same may yet happen them again for it will be France next, who will probably be regarded as the tournament’s new favourites heading into the semi-finals.
All that is certain for now, is the champions will be from Europe. And with Brazil, Germany and Argentina all gone at this stage of the competition for the first time ever, almost every side will feel they are in with a shout. With their win here, though, Belgium might just have shown the world at last that they have what it takes to be winners.
Brazil: Alisson; Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Paulinho (Renato Augusto 73), Fernandinho; Willian (Firmino 46), Coutinho, Neymar; Gabriel Jesus (Douglas Costa 58). Booked: Fernandinho, Fagner.
Belgium: Courtois; Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, Fellaini, Witsel, Chadli (Vermaelen 83); De Bruyne, Lukaku (Tielemans 87), Eden Hazard. Booked: Alderweireld, Meunier.