It took 90 minutes of mastery. Ninety minutes of agony and joy. Ninety minutes of grit and guile. Ninety minutes of tension and suffering. And even then, a World Cup ball was curling through the Kazan night, ready to undo everything.
Belgium had blitzed Brazil, then stifled the World Cup favorites as best it could. It had made myths of physical limitations, a golden generation giving everything to take advantage of a golden opportunity. And yet there was Neymar’s shot, bending into the top corner, threatening to detonate dreams; to stave off the upset; to send the 2018 World Cup’s most compelling quarterfinal into extra time.
But there, too, was Thibaut Courtois.
Courtois contorted his 6-foot-6 body to turn away Neymar, just as he had other Brazilians all night. And Belgium, previously defined by unfulfilled promise, stunned Brazil, 2-1, in a match that was equal parts chess match and track meet.
Belgium’s master plan
Belgium had progressed to the quarterfinals with an absurdly attack-minded lineup that had fueled it to the top of the World Cup goalscoring charts. But Japan had exposed that lineup in the Round of 16, leading to calls for manager Roberto Martinez to tweak his approach. And he did.
He devised a unique plan, defined by two different alignments: a 4-3-3 without the ball, and Belgium’s customary 3-4-2-1 with it.
The masterful ploy was planting Romelu Lukaku as a winger. From the wide position, Lukaku was Belgium’s outlet when possession changed feet. He camped out in the space vacated by Brazil’s offensively-inclined fullbacks, and was the key to the Belgian counter.
Brazil wasn’t necessarily flummoxed by Martinez’s strange shapeshifting formation. But it found midfield clogged by Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini, and found itself caught out on the counter.
Early set pieces
Belgium, though, did need a bit of good fortune to get tactical dominos falling in its favor. Fortune arrived in the form of set pieces.
The first two chances of the game were Brazilian. An early corner found its way through to Thiago Silva, who knew little about it as the ball caromed off his leg and onto the post. Several early set pieces had Belgium looking shaky.
But another set piece put the Red Devils ahead. Nacer Chadli’s corner got a slight flick from Vincent Kompany at the near post, then deflected off Fernandinho and past a helpless Alisson:
The goal put Brazil in a predicament. Because Belgium was built to play with the lead. Brazil had to press for an equalizer. Instead, it dug itself a deeper hole.
So much of Brazil’s attack flows down its attacking left. A significant portion of it runs through Neymar, of course. But Brazil is most dangerous when left back Marcelo is involved as well.
When Marcelo is involved, though, he’s not defending. Lukaku took up that wide right position freed up by Marcelo’s escapades. He dragged a Brazilian center back, often Joao Miranda, out there with him. Every few minutes, Brazil would get stretched, and Belgian midfielders would tug at the seams of the Brazilian defense with bursting runs.
The goal came off a corner, but the pattern was one that was prevalent throughout the second portion of the first half. Lukaku held off a Brazilian defender, broke to the middle, and eventually fed De Bruyne for Belgium’s second:
In the process, Lukaku exploited Brazil’s main weakness on the night. The counter was the exact type of attack that defensive midfielder Casemiro would have snuffed out. Casemiro, though, was suspended. His replacement, Fernadinho, let Lukaku glide past him without laying even a hand on the big Belgian striker.
With Casemiro, Brazil was seemingly impenetrable. Without him, it was vulnerable. When De Bruyne sent his rocket whizzing past Alisson, a soccer-mad nation was already slipping into a quadrennial despair that has become all too familiar over the past 12 years.
Should Brazil have had a penalty?
Ten minutes into the second half, Brazil’s comeback hopes seemingly rested with a room of video assistant referees in Moscow. Gabriel Jesus nutmegged Jan Vertonghen on the right side of the penalty area, and was taken down by a reckless challenge from Kompany.
On first viewing, the contact appeared to occur after the ball had already crossed the endline, making it innocuous. But replays showed Kompany’s studs sunk into Jesus’ shin with the ball still in play. It should have been a penalty.
The referee, though, curiously, did not make a trip to the pitchside monitor. Belgium escaped.
The Renato Augusto-led comeback
Brazil’s comeback was led by an unlikely source: Beijing Guoan midfielder Renato Augusto. Augusto had been a key player for the Selecao throughout qualifying, but had fallen out of favor in the buildup to Russia.
On as a substitute, his run from deep into the penalty box was picked out by Philippe Coutinho. Augusto powered a header into the corner to slash Belgium’s lead in half:
Minutes later, a similar bursting run from Augusto found space at the top of the box. He flashed an 18-yard shot just wide of the post.
Belgium barely hangs on
Throughout the game’s third quarter – the opening 20-plus minutes of the second half – Brazil was repeatedly repelled. Crosses had squirmed away from Brazilian feet. Shots from 25 yards out had clattered into Belgian calves.
Suddenly, with the lead halved, opportunities began to arise. With six minutes plus stoppage time remaining, Neymar escaped down the left, and found Coutinho’s trailing run with a perfectly-weighted pass. Coutinho’s shot, though, was wayward.
With Douglas Costa a menace on the left and Neymar on the right, the Selecao searched. They searched and searched and searched. By the time Neymar’s final effort was tipped over the bar by a flying Courtois, they had, admittedly, created more than enough chances to equalize.
And if they had, they surely could have found a third in extra time. When 90 became 90+5, they were dominant. They had quelled Belgium’s counterattacking threat. They had laid siege to the Belgian penalty area.
But this was Belgium’s night. It was a night of fulfillment, the one a nation had been waiting 32 years for. France awaits in the semis. Disappointment awaits back in Brazil.
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