Selecao hitting top gear

While Brazil's Willian respects Belgium's quality, he will be doing everything he can to send his rivals home early from Russia.
While Brazil's Willian respects Belgium's quality, he will be doing everything he can to send his rivals home early from Russia. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Willian respects Belgium's quality but warns his evolving side will send Hazard & Co home

QUARTER-FINALS

Brazil v Belgium
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SOCHI • Brazil's World Cup quarter-final today against Belgium will pit two of Chelsea's best midfielders against each other, but Brazil's Willian told reporters he will be doing everything he can to send his team-mate Eden Hazard of Belgium home early from Russia.

The teams meet in Kazan this evening with Brazil the favourites, despite the quality in a Belgian side captained by Hazard.

"I like being with him on a daily basis at club level. But now it is time for each of us to defend our corner and I hope to come out on top," the 29-year-old Willian said at Brazil's training base in Sochi.

"He is one of the best players in the world, but now I am on a different side and I want to do everything to win. But I know we will remain friends after."

Willian will also face another Chelsea team-mate in goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and he is aware of the quality throughout the Belgian team, who are the top scorers in the tournament so far with 12 goals.

"We have lots of respect for our rival. We know how much quality Belgium have got," Willian said.

"But we have to maintain our same way of playing, getting better every game, and that is what we will take into this match."

Willian is expected to keep his place in coach Tite's starting line-up for the game after producing his best performance so far in Sunday's 2-0 last-16 victory over Mexico.

It was a performance which suggested the five-time winners of the trophy were comfortable with their tag as favourites, having recorded three straight wins since an opening 1-1 draw against Switzerland.

Brazil also have the joint-best defence with Uruguay with just one goal conceded.

"The team has evolved since the first game," Willian added. "There was nervousness in that first match and we have grown step by step."

With Marcelo and Douglas Costa having shaken off injuries, it is the first time in this World Cup that Tite has had his whole squad fit.

However, Casemiro will miss the match due to suspension, with Fernandinho expected to replace him.

Despite all the talk about Hazard, there is always a nagging doubt that when the going gets tough, the attacking midfielder might again prove anonymous.

In the 2014 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina, the 27-year-old was replaced after 75 ineffective minutes as Belgium lost 1-0.

Two years later, he faded again when it mattered most and Belgium suffered a shock 3-1 loss to Wales in the Euro quarter-finals.

Hazard is admired for his attacking flair, ability to run at defences and finishing but it is his maverick genius that sets him apart.

"He's got extraordinary qualities, does things other players cannot. He's very strong on his feet so it's difficult to take the ball off him. I think he's the complete player," full-back Thomas Meunier said.

Ominously for Brazil, Hazard seems ready to deliver this time.

"I've known him for years and the way he has trained and played over the last weeks has been exceptional," said Courtois. "I think he can reach another level."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2018, with the headline 'Selecao hitting top gear'. Print Edition | Subscribe