Now that’s more like it! After Sunday’s forgettable fare, the Russia 2018 World Cup burst to life once more today as Brazil bested Mexico 2-0 while Belgium staged a monumental recovery to kayo Japan 3-2 in the Round of 16 competition.
Brazil, the five-time World Cup champions, and Belgium, who have never gotten further than the semifinal round, will now meet in what should be a sizzling quarterfinal affair in Kazan at 2pm on Friday afternoon.
Not for the first time, Brazilian attacker Neymar was the centre of attention today for his ability on the ball—and on his back. At around the 72nd minute, the gifted forward produced his trademark quadruple roll and yelp move, which so discombobulated Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi that he stopped the game for close to five minutes to ensure Neymar had not been amputated, also the player was off the field at the time.
The VAR replay showed Mexican midfielder Miguel Layun had stepped on Neymar’s ankle but the reaction was so out of sync with the challenge that they did not bother to book the offending player.
At which point, Neymar discovered that he did in fact still have two legs and got on with the game.
Brazil were leading 1-0 by a Neymar item at that stage—created by the irrepressible flanker, Willian—and their electric talisman went on to have a hand in their second goal too. On this occasion, Mexico custodian Guillermo Ochoa got a boot to a Neymar effort but only diverted the shot into the path of substitute Firmino, who knocked into an unprotected net from point blank range.
The match was not as straightforward as the scoreline suggests; and the unsung heroes were in Brazil’s superb defence, commandeered by a man called Alisson.
As iconic late country singer Johnny Cash once explained, life isn’t easy for a boy with a name devoid of testosterone. Brazil’s goalkeeper, Alisson Becker, compensates with remarkable defiance and concentration.
It is over 310 minutes now since Brazil last conceded and, with a rare off-colour showing from Philippe Coutinho and patchy performances from Neymar and Gabriel Jesus, their rearguard set the platform for a solid win over the plucky Concacaf outfit.
There was little sign of such defensive know-how in today’s second affair as Belgium and Japan combined adventurous attack with kamikaze defending in a five-goal thriller.
The “Samurai Blue” took a surprise lead on a counter-attack in the 48th minute after Belgium defender Jan Vertonghen showed about as much dexterity as a corpse, in a pathetic attempt to cut out a through ball that was expertly finished by Genki Haraguchi.
Belgium sought an immediate reply as captain Eden Hazard rapped the Japanese upright within seconds. Yet, remarkably, Japan doubled their lead through Takashi Inui in the 52nd minute, as Belgium pressed with all the urgency of a fete match team.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez had given nine of his 10 outfield players the day off in their last outing—ostensibly to be fresh for this game; but, quite probably, in a bid to avoid this half of the bracket and a potential early meeting with Brazil.
Maybe his well rested players were actually still asleep.
Japan could not hold on though, partly because coach Akira Nishino decided that a two-goal lead against a team on a 22 match unbeaten streak was not convincing enough.
“When we were 2-0 up and I didn’t change my players, I really wanted to score another goal and we did have opportunities,” said Nishino, in the post-game press conference. “We were to some extent, controlling the ball and controlling the game…”
Maybe someone will put that on his tombstone one day.
In the 69th minute, Vertonghen partially atoned for his earlier blunder with a remarkable header, which bent and dipped to beat opposing custodian Eiji Kawashima. Game on!
Five minutes later, the “Red Devils” were level as Marouane Fellaini headed home from a Hazard cross. Look trouble now!
Bravely, Nishino sent on veteran playmaker Keisuke Honda to get a winner. And, in the fourth minute of stoppage time, Honda came close with a thumping 35 yard free kick that Belgium custodian Thibaut Courtois dove full stretch to push for a corner.
“At that point, when the free-kick and corner-kick were taken,” said Nishino, “we wanted to decide and finish the match.”
Instead, Belgium won possession from Japan’s corner. Courtois rolled the ball out to midfielder Kevin De Bruyne who relayed it wide to Thomas Meunier. Meunier crossed low to striker Romelu Lukaku, who made the most vital move of all by simply not touching the ball.
The dummy gave Belgium substitute Nacer Chadli time and space to clip the winner past Kawashima. It was the first time a team recovered from a 2-0 goal deficit in a World Cup knockout match since Germany FR roared back to defeat England 3-2—flipping 48 years ago at the 1970 tournament!
The Round of 16 ends tomorrow with Sweden tackling Switzerland from 10am while Colombia and England square off from 2pm. Doh drag the flag, fellahs!
World Cup 2018
(Monday 2 July)
Brazil 2 (Neymar 51, Firmino 88), Mexico 0, Samara;
Belgium 3 (Jan Vertonghen 69, Marouane Fellaini 74, Nacer Chadli 90+4), Japan 2 (Genki Haraguchi 48, Takashi Inui 52), Rostov-On-Don.
(Tuesday 3 July)
Sweden (F1) v Switzerland (E2), 10am, St Petersburg;
Colombia (H1) v England (G2), 2pm, Moscow.
(Friday 6 July)
France v Uruguay, 10am, Nizhny Novgorod;
Brazil v Belgium, 2pm, Kazan;
(Saturday 7 July)
Sweden/Switzerland v Colombia/England, 10am, Samara;
Russia v Croatia, 2pm, Sochi.