World Cup: Belgium fearless with zero to lose

Nacer Chadli sidefooting home past Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima after a lightning counter-attack from a corner at the other end to give Belgium a last-gasp 3-2 win. The Red Devils will next face Brazil in the last eight.
Nacer Chadli sidefooting home past Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima after a lightning counter-attack from a corner at the other end to give Belgium a last-gasp 3-2 win. The Red Devils will next face Brazil in the last eight.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Martinez confident his side can thrive against Brazilians without weight of favourites' tag

MOSCOW • It took a great escape in stoppage time to get there after going two goals down against Japan, but Belgium can now view their quarter-final against Brazil free of the weight of expectation.

"When you play against Brazil, you need to understand they are the best team in the competition," coach Roberto Martinez said after a final charge up the pitch in the 94th minute gave Belgium a 3-2 win and a tough date in Kazan on Friday. "We can enjoy it from the first minute. I don't think anyone expects us to go through to the semi-finals."

In a goal-less first half on Monday, when the Japanese gave a side ranked third in the world by Fifa no space and threatened on the break, his players displayed "a fear of not being able to fulfil the tag of being favourites", said Martinez.

Only once they were 2-0 behind with half an hour to play and "nothing to lose" did the Red Devils free up, he added.

They became the first team in 52 years to come from at least two goals down to win a match in the knockout stages within 90 minutes. The last team to do that were Portugal, who beat North Korea 5-3 in their 1966 quarter-final after trailing 0-3.

While Belgians at home are still asking questions of the strength of Martinez's three-man defence, nobody criticised his double substitution in the 65th minute.

  • 52

    Belgium are the first team in 52 years to come from two or more goals down to win a World Cup knockout-stage match in 90 minutes. Portugal were the last to do so, beating North Korea 5-3 in their 1966 quarter-final after trailing 0-3.

    20

    Number of yards Jan Vertonghen was from goal when he looped a header in. It is the longest headed World Cup goal since such statistics were first recorded in 1966.

The Spaniard threw on West Bromwich Albion winger Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini, the towering Manchester United midfielder. Fellaini headed in the equaliser nine minutes after coming off the bench before Chadli got the winner.

"We were thinking it was going to be like two years ago against Wales," captain Eden Hazard said of their Euro 2016 loss. "But we were also thinking if we can score goals the game is on.

"We have players that can change a game, we brought players from the bench who made the difference, so today we are just happy to have won and gone through.

"The reaction we showed today was great and maybe it is this type of match we needed for the future, as we could have been eliminated but we are into the quarter-finals."

Friday's encounter with Brazil will test whether they can make good on their tactical and technical promise but the turnaround in Rostov suggests Martinez has at least brought mental steel and strength in depth.

"That was a test for the team and its character," said Martinez. "We survived it, we have gone through and that is the most important thing. No negatives today, it was about getting through."

The former Everton manager also said Japan deserved credit for presenting his team with the challenge they did.

"Let's congratulate Japan, they played the perfect game," he added. "They were clinical on the counter and so solid."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2018, with the headline 'Belgium fearless with zero to lose '. Print Edition | Subscribe