On a day when Belgium struggled for so long to do the simple things, Roberto Martinez went back to basics to turn around a 2-0 deficit, wipe away the sweat and see his side through to a World Cup quarter-final against Brazil.
If you were being charitable you would credit Martinez for having a plan B, though the Belgian press are unlikely to see it that way after a game in which the Red Devils, with their embarrassingly-deep, scarily-talented squad, were outplayed for large parts by Japan.
What won this game for Belgium, however, after a poor first half and an ugly comeback, was plan A - the sweeping, beautiful football that the Spaniard has always advocated. Lightning to go with the thunder.
Goalless at half-time, both sides were ruing a lack of final ball in a game that looked in danger of petering out. But all it took was one mistake from Jan Vertonghen to turn a dangerous-looking pass from Takashi Inui into the perfect through ball, and Genki Haraguchi faked out Thibaut Courtois before sticking it beyond the Belgian and seemingly setting this wild World Cup on course for its latest upset.
Inui was the stand-out player in a first half that will be remembered for brisk passing play with no end product and a second half that suddenly sprung a leak of pure liquid goals.
Within a minute of going ahead Japan were caught on the counter and Eden Hazard clattered the ball against the post. It was game on, but a minute later it appeared to be game off when Inui, exploiting the most obvious flaw in Martinez’s 3-4-3 system, picked up the ball 25 yards out and, unopposed, smashed home from distance.
Belgium and Japan are both teams who have played flowing football throughout this tournament, it is very much their style and their plan A. Any Roberto Martinez team is expected to play a certain way and the Red Devils more than obliged, passing quickly, stretching the field and looking to attack with speed and certainty but this ultimately proved to be the perfect match for a Japanese side packed with playmakers and energy, leaving gaps in the centre of the field where Japan are so rich on talent.
In Inui, they have one of the underrated stars of this World Cup. Real Betis will be delighted that they secured his signing before he could make such an impact on the global stage, and he once again looked their most dangerous player as he linked up with but outshone more established names like Shinji Kagawa and Makoto Hasebe.
Belgium’s central midfield consisted of Kevin de Bruyne and Axel Witsel, excellent on paper but absent in reality. Marouane Fellaini was called on by Martinez as an aerial weapon more than anything but he actually improved their engine room, such was the abject display from Witsel in this encounter, whose place must be under threat against the Brazilians.
Fellaini came on with Nacer Chadli as Martinez tried to shake things up and within minutes they were back in the game, Vertonghen the unlikely scorer as he atoned for his error in Japan’s first.
Then Belgium came on stronger, their opponents retreating into their shell as the aerial bombardment began.
And so, of course, it was Fellaini who would head home to level up the game suddenly have Belgium believing again.
For a team who looked as if they were on a plane home just minutes earlier it was a remarkable turnaround, a creditable show of character too. Japan continued to threaten and even hit the post but if anything it was the Japanese commitment to their own style which allowed Martinez’s to come good and win the game in the most agonising way.
Having gone so close to a stoppage-time winner with Keisuke Honda’s free-kick, Japan had a corner and a real shot at kicking Belgium in the teeth. Instead it was they who were left bloodied, the otherwise quiet De Bruyne galloping forward at speed to initiate a counter-attack with the seconds ticking down and teammates streaming upfield alongside him.
The red shirts were visible and they outnumbered blue as De Bruyne shifted through the gears, the runs needed to be perfect, to distract the defenders, and they were. De Bruyne’s pass needed to be perfect and, of course, it was. Perfectly weighted to the right and then fizzed across goal for Chadli, the arriving substitute, to tap home and break Japanese hearts.
It was a stunning end to a stunning game. Belgium in the quarter-finals and breathless, Japan punished for over-committing and being unable to deal with first the shock and awe of Belgium size and strength before being run over by their speed and sizzle.
Plan B worked this time, but now Martinez must hatch a plan for Brazil and they won’t be quite so accommodating.
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