Full disclosure: this was supposed to be a piece about Kevin De Bruyne. About how he was magnificent all season for Manchester City, lurking in those half spaces, driving towards the penalty area where sometimes he found an invisible pass and sometimes he unleashed an unstoppable shot. It was supposed to be about how he is trapped in Roberto Martinez’s system, too deep, too isolated, too inert, all of the things he wasn’t at City.
In the end it was his driving run which sparked the killer goal of this incredible match and ended Japan’s journey in Russia. This was the De Bruyne who lit up the Premier League all year, skating across his own ice rink while the Japanese players around him chased in trainers, setting free Thomas Meunier on the right to cross for Nacer Chadli, who did the rest.
But there was a moment in the second half when Takashi Inui unleashed his own unstoppable shot which felt far more significant for this World Cup. One of the pre-tournament worries doing the rounds was that this would be the first World Cup without any surprises; there wouldn’t be any hidden gems unearthed in the information age, as we immerse ourselves in previews and profiles and know what’s going to happen before it’s happened.
Except if this World Cup has reminded us of anything it’s that football is rarely predictable. Even in an age when technology has all but removed the referee’s match-turning cock-up, when luck has been all but removed from the equation, there is still the possibility of any 11 footballers grafting to beat 11 other footballers.
Those who follow the Bundesliga or La Liga closely will know Inui from his successful spells at Frankfurt and Eibar. But he has barely played any European competition, and had never played in a World Cup before this one, so for most of the world this was his introduction and even at 30 years old he felt like a genuinely exciting discovery.
He was bright and threatening against Colombia, scored with a wonderful bending shot against Senegal in his best performance so far, before a far quieter game in that charity walkathon with Poland.
Against Belgium he was back to his most threatening. At one point in the first half he brought a 50-yard pass under his spell before spinning away from his marker with a strut and teeing up Shinji Kagawa. It was Kagawa again who setup Inui for his goal. Against Senegal he wrapped his foot around the ball; this time he blasted straight through it, beating Courtois at his far post.
At that moment it seemed Japan were through, another giant crashing out. More superstars heading home. Let’s write about Inui, we thought. But if this World Cup has reminded us of anything, it’s that football is rarely predictable. The world found out a little more about Belgium’s quality and mentality in the final half an hour in Rostov, and in Inui we found a hidden gem.
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