Belgium vs Japan World Cup 2018: Brazil remain a cut above, Martinez's risky system and Japan's surprising quality

Nacer Chadli broke Japanese hearts as Belgium's golden generation narrowly escaped another disappointment

Liam Twomey
Monday 02 July 2018 19:21
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Belgium World Cup profile

Belgium survived a huge scare against Japan to win a dramatic match 3-2 and set up a mouthwatering World Cup quarter-final tie against Brazil.

Goals from Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui put Japan 2-0 up before Belgium rallied, levelling the match with headers from Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini before Nacer Chadli won it with the final kick of the game.

Here are five things we learned from the match:

Brazil are clear favourites to win this World Cup

Brazil's forward Neymar celebrates after scoring the opening goal

Hours after Brazil had convincingly and relatively comfortably dispatched a tenacious and dynamic Mexico side, Belgium were exposed as not on the same level as Tite’s men against a Japan team with similar strengths and weaknesses.

Add their performance to the limp exits that befell pre-tournament favourites Spain and holders Germany, and we are yet to see any team that combines Brazil’s talent level with the balance they have found between a sturdy defence and an ominously dangerous attack.

Even France, who overcame Argentina in a seven-goal thriller for the ages, looked startlingly vulnerable and may pay for their flaws against Uruguay, who boast arguably the best defence in the tournament but may not be as ruthless if Edinson Cavani is injured for the remainder of the competition.

Four years on from an historic humiliation, the World Cup is Brazil’s to lose.

Belgium are still less than the sum of their parts

This is a Belgium squad heaving with top talent, much of which can be seen dominating Premier League matches on a regular basis. In fairness, their record under Roberto Martinez has been appropriately dominant – they came into this match unbeaten in almost two years, having won 17 of their previous 23 games.

But watching them play, even when they score goals, it’s hard not to feel underwhelmed. Belgium have come a long way since the hapless Marc Wilmots era but this team still feels like a collection of individuals rather than a coherent whole, reliant on moments of magic in the final third rather than the success of the system to win.

Maybe the solution is as simple as to move Kevin De Bruyne further forward from the roving No8 position Martinez has reserved for him, where his vision and flawless technique can be even more devastating. Maybe it is more complicated but, whatever the explanation, Belgium are gifted and experienced enough to be better than they are.

There's more to Japan than fair play

Takashi Inui of Japan celebrates with teammates after scoring his team's second goal

Implicit in criticism of Gareth Southgate’s willingness to accept England facing a dangerous Colombia side in the World Cup round of 16 was the notion that Japan were pushovers.

It’s true that few teams were less heralded coming into this tournament. It’s also true that they only qualified from Group H by virtue of fair play record, following a farcically passive final 10 minutes against Poland. But the reality is that Japan showed plenty of flashes against Colombia and Senegal to suggest they could cause anyone problems.

Akira Nishino is a competent tactician who led Japan to a bronze medal in the 1996 Olympics, and his squad is one of the most experienced at the World Cup. They knew what to expect from their illustrious opponents and set up to exploit their weaknesses. They do not beat themselves, as Belgium found out.

Martinez's system is too risky

Anyone who watched his Wigan and Everton teams knows that Martinez is a footballing idealist, a man who dreams about what his players can do with the ball rather than worrying about what might happen if they lose it.

The 3-4-3 system he implemented, with winger Yannick Ferreira Carrasco covering the entire left flank, succeeded against weak teams but never looked likely to work against opponents who managed to weather the storm at the other end. Japan rode their luck defensively at times, but they also created enough chances to embarrass Belgium.

Nishino instructed his wingers to run into the space behind Thomas Meunier and Carrasco while his midfielders constantly looked to switch the play wide quickly. The plan was spectacularly effective, and you suspect Brazil will do even more damage with Neymar and Willian.

Betis have done well to get Inui

It’s extremely rare in 2018 for a relatively unknown player to genuinely surprise with his quality, but after 10 relatively unremarkable years in Germany and Spain, Inui has shone brighter than most on the World Cup stage.

He served notice of his talent with one excellent goal against Senegal and another curling shot that missed the top corner by inches. Against Belgium his close control, passing and dribbling were spectacular throughout, and his strike from 25 yards to put Japan 2-0 up will be in the montage of the tournament’s best goals.

Real Betis signed Inui from Eibar on a free transfer this summer. On the evidence of the last two weeks there will be few better value acquisitions in this window.

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