Belgium entered the 2018 World Cup in Russia as one of the favourites to take the title. They were ranked 3rd in the FIFA World Ranking and the “Golden Generation” that had made it one of the best sides in the world were in their best age. The entire Belgian squad played in some of Europe’s best clubs, and looked strong in every position. Among the stars were the fantastic Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, as well as strong strikers with the Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Napoli’s Dries Mertens. The defense was led by Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, alongside some highly experienced players in Thomas Vermaelen, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. Finally, Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois was perhaps the best goalkeeper in the world at the time.
Belgium had qualified in style, scoring an incredible 43 goals in ten matches, and they basically continued scoring goals in Russia: they opened by defeating the debutants of Panama 3-0, then defeated Tunisia 5-2, before winning their last match against England 1-0 and winning their group.
In the last-16 the Belgians were favourites against Japan, but had to struggle when they went down 0-2 early in the second half, and appeared on the way out. But the team showed great stamina when they came back from behind to win 3-2, and make it to the quarterfinals, where they were to face the mighty Brazilians.
After the 7-1 debacle at the 2014 World Cup Brazil had entered a period of refelction and renewal under the manager Tite, who had focused on taking advantage of Brazil’s technical skills and attacking prowess. In qualification they had swept aside opposition, only losing one match on the way. As always, Brazil was a team of stars from European clubs and strong in all positions: Liverpool’s Allison on goal, behind a solid defense with players such as PSG’s Thiago Silva, Inter’s Miranda, Real MAdrid’s offensive winger Marcelo and Atletico Madrid’s Felipe Luis. In midfield the Brazilians had stars such as Barcelona’s Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho, Manchester City’s Fernandinho and Chelsea’s Willian. And up front the biggest star of them all, PSG’s Neymar.
Brazil were certainly a team that would compete for the title, but did not look strong in their opening match when they only managed a tie 1-1 against Switzerland, but they still went on to win the group with two 2-0 victories over Costa Rica and Serbia respectively. In the last-16 Brazil faced Mexico, also winning 2-0.
Despite Belgium’s victory over Japan they had looked shaky against he quick Japanese attacks, and manager Martinez had decided to start with Felllaini and Chadli, both players who had come on against Japan and scored. In the meantime Brazil’s center-backs, Thiago Silva and Miranda, had looked solid throughout the tournament. Against Mexico Neymar had looked strong and able to shake up every defense, but the Brazilians were without Real Madrid’s Casemiro, who had been replaced by Fernandinho.
First half was very entertaining. Brazil managed to put pressure on a Belgian defense that sometimes played very deeply, but who had the sure hands of Courtois to take some chances that came near. The closest was an attempt following a corner kick which Thiago Silva did not control, but the ball hit the post nevertheless. In the meantime Belgium also managed to create chances with their highly mobile and quick atatcks that put the otherwise solid Brazilian defense under pressure. It was Belgium who first scored: after a corner kick the ball struck Fernandinho’s arm as he was trying to head away, and instead went into goal.
Brazil continued attacking looking for an equalizer, while Belgium felt more comfortable on the pitch, and looked incredibly dangerous when they counter-attacked. And it was in one of these counter-attacks that the movement of Lukaku, Hazard and De Bruyne tore the Brazilian defense apart as De Bruyne received the ball and struck marvelously hard and precise into goal.
Belgium were leading 2-0 at half-time and were looking as semifinalists, although everyone expected Brazil to come with everything in the second half as Firmino came on for Willian, and later on Douglas Costa and Renato Augusto came on for Gabriel Jesus and Paulinho respectively. Belgium instinctively pulled back but continued to be dangerous on the break (Eden Hazard had a close attampt on a counter-attack), but it was a game largely dominated by Brazil who, when them managed to get a shot, were most often stopped by Courtois. It was only in the 73rd minute when Renato Augusto scored on a header after a lovely flip into the area by Coutinho, and gave renewed hope to the Brazilians who put extra pressure. Both Firmino and Renato Augusto had some big misses, but in the end it was Courtois who, in the dying seconds of the match had a spectacular save on a shot by Neymar: one of those saves that is worth a goal and a title, and which made Courtois Man of the Match.
Belgium won 2-1 and with five straight wins were looking to take the title. But in the semifinals they lost 1-0 to France. Belgium went on to win third place against England; Belgium’s best World Cup result ever, but not what had been expected from them after their fantastic victory over mighty Brazil.
6th July 2018
Kazan Arena, Kazan
Referee: Milorad Mazic (Serbia)
Belgium: Thibaut Courtois; Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweirld, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Meunier; Axel Witsel, Nacer Chadli (Thomas Vermaelen, 83), Marouane Fellaini, Kevin De Bruyne; Eden Hazard (c), Romelu Lukaku (Youri Tielemans, 87). Manager: Roberto Martinez
Brazil: Alisson; Miranda (c), Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Fagner; Fernandinho, Phillippe Coutinho, Paulinho (Renato Augusto, 73), Gabriel Jesus (Douglas Costa, 58); Neymar, Willian (Roberto Firmino, 45). Manager: Tite
1-0 Fernandinho (OG) (13)
2-0 Kevin De Bruyne (31)
2-1 Renato Augusto (76)
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