They have been billed as their country’s golden generation for some time and now they have the chance to prove it. Belgium’s success in overcoming the United States in the most dramatic, compelling match of this World Cup so far has merely opened the door to an even bigger test – a quarter-final against Lionel Messi’s Argentina on Saturday afternoon – and Eden Hazard, for one, believes that they can pass it.
Belgium’s 2-1 extra-time success over the US took them into a first World Cup quarter-final since 1986 in Mexico when, ironically, they ended up losing to a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina in the semi-finals. Maradona scored twice that day, including a solo effort almost as good as the one he had managed against England in the previous round.
“It is a big game for this generation,” said Hazard. “It is very important. We can make history. I hope we can win. We know the best player in the world is in this team, but we are not afraid. We can win.”
The Chelsea forward suggested that Belgium have a better team than an Argentina side notably reliant on Messi – “It is the difference [though] they have Angel di Maria as well” – and this was a view echoed by his coach Marc Wilmots. “We are not favourites against Argentina but there is a lack of balance in their team,” he said. “We will make sure we play well against a stronger opponent. I do not worry about what happened in the past and I certainly don’t think it will happen again.”
Belgium will certainly travel to Brasilia for Saturday’s quarter-final with confidence after they finally took flight as an attacking force against the US. Following criticism of their defensively sound if uninspiring performances in winning Group H, they were a different proposition in Salvador on Tuesday evening, where they had 27 shots on goal and would have won comfortably inside 90 minutes but for the brilliance of Tim Howard.
It helped that the US gave them more space to play in than their group stage opponents had allowed them, as Kevin de Bruyne acknow-leged: “It was easier to play with the ball, it was not like playing with 10 defenders.”
Once again they left it late, though, winning in extra time through goals from De Bruyne and substitute Romelu Lukaku. De Bruyne was arguably Belgium’s best performer though he praised the impact of the squad’s two strikers, teenager Divock Origi – who led the line impressively on only his second international start – and the man who replaced him for extra time, Lukaku. “It is the same as happened before when Romelu started and Divock make the difference [scoring the winner against Russia]. Now it happened the other way. Divock did well but was tired and then Romelu did really well.”
A tired American defence could not handle the contributions from Tottenham’s swashbuckling left-back Jan Vertonghen and Everton winger Kevin Mirallas, whose impact as a substitute underlined further Belgium’s strength in depth. They may well need it against Argentina.
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