Brazil were desperate to have the last laugh at this World Cup but despite going further than their arch rivals Germany, they too leave Russia empty handed. Belgium beat them 2-1 on the night to secure a first World Cup semi-final since Mexico 1986.
Alisson; Fagner, Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Paulinho (Renato Augusto, 73'), Fernandinho, Coutinho; Willian (Firmino, 46'), Gabriel Jesus (Douglas Costa, 58') y Neymar.
Courtois; Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, De Bruyne, Witsel, Fellaini, Chadli (Vermaelen, 83'); Hazard, Lukaku (Tielemans, 87').
0-1 M. 13 Fernandinho, en propia puerta. 0-2 M. 31 De Bruyne. 1-2 M. 78 Renato Augusto.
Milorad Mazic (Serbia). TA: Fernandinho (85'), Fagner (90') / Alderweireld (47'), Meunier (71').
Kazan Arena. 42.873 espectadores
When you reach this stage it’s common for sides to start slowly, keep it tight at the back and grow into the game. Brazil and Belgium clearly didn’t read the script as they both started as if we were entering injury time and needed a goal. It was end to end stuff with Brazil the most threatening.
Set pieces are becoming the bread and butter of this tournament and Brazil twice came close to taking the lead. Belgium weren’t to be outdone and went one further than their rivals by actually putting the ball in the back of the net. Well, technically it was a Brazilian player but either way, Belgium took the lead than 15 minutes in.
A corner – what else I hear you say – was swung in to the front post and Fernandinho ended up deflecting it beyond Alisson. Not the start they were hoping for, or deserved, after such a positive opening period. Football isn’t always fair though.
If Brazil didn’t like that, they weren’t going to like what came next. A goal made in Manchester saw Belgium double their lead on the half hour mark. Fellaini, a surprise starter, won a header and it went straight to his United teammate Romelu Lukaku. The front man charged forward avoiding challenges before picking out Manchester City man Kevin de Bruyne. He unleashed an unstoppable shot past Alisson. Brazil were on the rocks here.
Brazil made a change at half-time as they brought on Roberto Firmino for the ineffective Willian. If the plan was to take control of the game it worked as Belgium, caught between two minds of whether to go for the kill or sit and protect, were forced back by a fearsome Brazilian forward line.
Neymar delighted as much as he frustrated. You want him to focus on the incredible talent he possesses rather than his incessant need to play the storybook villain. Casually dribbling past a marker or two before hurtling to the ground claiming his foot had been broken in half. But, much like the boy who cried wolf, people are growing wise to his act and this means, even when he is fouled, no one believes him.
Neymar half-heartedly clamoured for a penalty before realising he had been caught and just needed to get on with it. And the biggest issue, as a neutral, is that there’s often no need for him to go to ground in the first place. Neymar works himself into a good position and then looks for the cheap, easy option. That’s what, amongst other things, separates him from someone like Ronaldinho. The curly-haired maestro didn’t stop when he got kicked or felt contact; he skipped through those challenges and finished off his dribble. Neymar is lazier in that regard. And when you’re ‘lazier’ than Ronaldinho, despite how big your crown is, that’s not a good thing.
Douglas Costa and Renato Augusto came on to freshen things up for Brazil and it was the latter who gave his nation a glimmer of hope. Philippe Coutinho, who has had an outstanding World Cup, floated in a fantastic cross that Renato beat Courtois to and reduced the deficit to one with 15 minutes remaining.
Brazil kept pushing forward for that equaliser but Belgium found an outlet in Eden Hazard. With the front line all to himself, the Chelsea man shone in the moment he needed to with his quick feet and turn of pace too much for whoever was left up against him. Every foul was earned, taking vital seconds off the clock as Belgium tired.
Neymar had his moment to steal the show for all the right reasons. A well-worked move saw the ball fall to him on the edge of the box. Without a second thought he powered home a shot which looked destined for the top corner. Neymar was going to be the hero, the hero Brazil needed him to be. Yet it was Courtois’ turn to play the villain as his large frame edged ever closer to the ball and his fingertips denied Neymar an equaliser.
Belgium weathered the final storm and now find themselves in the semi-final of the World Cup where they’ll play France. Maybe this Golden Generation of talent is finally going to fulfil its potential. At least one Spaniard is enjoying this World Cup.