Belgium is into the semi-finals of the World Cup, only for the second time in their history. They defeated Brazil 2-1 in a scintillating game of a football at Kazan Arena in front of 42000 spectators. Brazil, yes the tournament favourites Brazil are heading home as Belgium prepares for the semi-finals clash with France next week.
Here are our 5 key points from the match:
1. Martinez Masterclass
Its been over two years since Roberto Martinez was sacked by Everton. And now he stands on the cusp of history as his team is just one win away from a place in the World Cup Final. Appointed after the debacle of 2016, he has been unbeaten over the past 24 games. His Belgium side breezed through the Qualifying campaign but he knew his real test would begin only in Russia. Many criticized his 3-4-3 formation but he stuck to his beliefs and tonight proved why he was right and others were wrong. He pulled out a tactical genius on his Brazilian counterpart Tite by dropping Mertens and going with the physical presence of Marouane Fellaini in the midfield. This gave Kevin De Bruyne more freedom in attacking areas and less defensive responsibilities. He also split his two attackers, Hazard and Lukaku to wider positions, left and right-hand channels respectively. This allowed Belgium to counter-attack with purpose as Hazard and Lukaku would find acres of space left behind by Brazilian attack minded full backs with KdB running the show through the middle. This tactic completely confused Brazil as time and time again in the first half, Belgium cut open Brazil on the counter and looked dangerous every time they entered the Brazilian half.
Belgian Golden Generation Step Up
Belgium were touted as dark horses for the World Cup 2014 itself. But the main question their critics constantly asked was will this golden generation of Belgian players ever step up at the international stage and realize their true potential? They limped out at the QFs in both WC 2014 and Euros 2016. Probably it was their uber defensive minded manager Wilmots holding them back. In this year’s WC under Martinez, this side looks hungrier and sharper than ever before. The likes of Hazard, Lukaku, De Bruyne, Fellaini, Kompany, Courtois made the jump when it mattered the most. It was probably the biggest international match of their careers and they showed why they are regarded as world-class players. They did this as a team, as a unit and rose above their respective egos. If the first half was a show of finesse and artistry, the second half was a show of grit, strength and character. Brazil had 17 attempts on goal in the second half but the Red Devils held onto their lead and progressed into the semis.
The Big Man
Belgium is a massive team. The likes of Lukaku, Kompany, Vertonghen, Alderweireld are all giants, but you know very well about the person I am talking about. Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini is probably one of the most disliked players among Manchester United supporters. His antics regarding his contract didn’t help his cause either. But even his harshest of critics agree that if used properly, he can be one hell of a game changer. Belgium was losing 2-0 to Japan, starring at an embarrassing defeat in the Round of 16 when Martinez has had enough and threw in Fellaini and Nacer Chadli. The substitutes completely changed the game, Fellaini scoring the equalizer and Chadli the winner in a historic 3-2 comeback win. Martinez knew he had awoken the beast and now he decided to unleash him right from the very beginning against the Brazilians. In the first half, Fellaini proved to be the difference between the two sides. Yes, de Bruyne will take all credits for his thunderbolt of a goal and Lukaku with his brilliant dribbling and assist, but it was Fellaini who was winning the midfield battle for the Belgians. He dispossessed Neymar several times in the first half and initiated quick counter-attacks whenever he recovered the ball. In the second half, he was almost everywhere. Blocking shots from the edge of the area, winning headers on corners, snatching away the ball in midfield, holding the ball for the attackers, everything that Martinez could have asked from him. He will probably start against France too and may prove to be their Kryptonite as well.
Neymar will never learn
We all know what a great football player Neymar is. But we also know what a cunning actor he is. And Russia 2018 has reminded everyone with his latter characteristic. Right from the first game against Switzerland, his antics were on show. Rolling, falling, faking pain and everything that you wouldn’t want from a superstar who is looked upon by millions of youngsters. His acting reached new heights in the game against Mexico in the round of 16. He rolled in pain on the ground as if he was shot multiple times when the Mexican player had not even touched him. He tried doing the same in the QFs even though he very well knew that he was on a yellow card and if he got one for diving then he would miss the next match. He dived twice and tried to deceive the referee, once against Fellaini and the other time against Meunier. His antics filled the referees’ mind with doubt and Brazil didn’t get a penalty when Jesus was fouled by Kompany. It was a clear pen but who could blame the ref if he thought that’s also another one the Brazilian dives. Neymar’s moment to shine has gone and yet another pre-tournament favourite bites the dust.
With Brazil’s defeat, for the 5th time in the history of the World Cups, all four semi-finalists will be European nations. Japan was Asia’s last torchbearers but knocked out in Round of 16 by Belgium. No African country was able to qualify into the knock out stages. In fact for the very first time in the history of the game, there will be none of Germany, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Italy or Netherlands in the final four of the WC. For the 4th time in a row, a European nation will win the WC. A golden age for the continent continues. But it also reflects an important point on the South American countries that talent isn’t always enough. Proper planning and preparation for the event is equally important