Belgium showed a little bit of everything a World Cup-winning team need in the 2-1 quarter-final victory over Brazil – so are they now favourites for the tournament?
Roberto Martinez’s Red Devils were phenomenal in the first half, leading 2-0 and threatening to blow Brazil away, before showing strength of character to hold on for the final 15 minutes after Renato Augusto’s goal set up a tense finale.
This victory came just four days after they fought back from 2-0 down to beat Japan 3-2 in the last 16.
We have known for years they have the players, but questions have lingered over their mentality.
Many of those doubts now seem to have been answered, with Match of the Day pundit Rio Ferdinand saying they “are the team to beat” in Russia as they bid to win their first major tournament.
‘Golden generation answering critics in perfect way’
Belgium were commanding from the outset, taking the lead when Fernandinho scored an own goal before Kevin de Bruyne added a fantastic second from 25 yards.
“This result was huge,” said Ferdinand. “They seem like they have a few leaders. This team were questioned for their mentality and character coming into this tournament – they disappointed at the Euros two years ago.
“This golden generation are answering their critics in the perfect way. The manner in which they dispatched Brazil, the way they started the game and bullied a very good team and then got over the line, shows they have got the bit between their teeth. They are the team to beat now.”
Belgium will meet France in the first semi-final on Tuesday, while an all European final four will be made up of two from Sweden, England, Russia and Croatia.
Jurgen Klinsmann, a World Cup winner with West Germany in 1990, was similarly impressed: “It was a stunning performance. They hung in there and fought. You can see they have an amazing team spirit. They are very close – Roberto Martinez is doing an amazing job.”
BBC 5 live summariser Pat Nevin added: “Belgium have got every chance of winning it.
“It helps when your players are on form. Eden Hazard was brilliant, as was De Bruyne, who you know always makes the right pass, and Romelu Lukaku was unplayable up to 60 minutes.”
Managing egos: How Martinez turned Belgium around
Less than two years after being sacked as Everton boss, Spaniard Martinez will take Belgium into a World Cup semi-final with France – their first appearance in the last four since 1986.
They turned to him after going out in the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 – the latter to Wales – with a very real danger that this golden generation would fail to deliver a trophy.
Now, they are unbeaten in 24 games since a defeat by Martinez’s homeland in his first game in charge.
Ferdinand said: “That’s being able to manage egos. Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku are all the main men at their clubs and they’ve had to be brought together. The manager has got them playing together and got them believing in a dream.”
Ex-England captain Alan Shearer said: “The big question about Belgium was ‘are you a team of individuals or can you come together as a team?’ And he’s gelled them together. That’s got to come from the manager. There’s a huge difference between where they are now and where they were two years ago.”
Klinsmann, who managed Germany at the 2006 World Cup, said: “He formed this Belgium team in a way that they believe in it. They stick to the plan. He changed tactics, the players bought into it and it seems everyone is on the same page. They have good chemistry. The quarter-final is the most important point of a World Cup – you either make it or break it.”
Martinez made a big call at 2-0 down against Japan, bringing Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli off the bench – with both players scoring in the comeback.
Both kept their places in the team which beat Brazil as Belgium abandoned their wing-back formation, instead playing 4-3-3 with no main striker and Lukaku on the right.
Shearer said: “The manager made big changes against Japan. He brought Fellaini on and he changed the game. He kept him tonight and he was magnificent, the way he and Axel Witsel supported that back four. All the decisions he made, like pushing De Bruyne further forward and changing the system, all worked.”
Nevin said: “Roberto Martinez will make many decisions in his managerial career but he won’t make many better than today. We thought Belgium would struggle with a back three against Brazil, so he changed it. Credit to him for that.
“You have got to do something special to stop this Brazilian side. It was a big call to bring Fellaini back, but he stuck to his job so the system was perfect.”
Former Wigan manager Martinez said: “Brazil have so much finesse and you know that they can cut you open. But I didn’t think for one second that the players would give up.
“They’ve done something special and I hope everyone in Belgium is very, very proud. It has created a nice memory and we should treasure it. But now we need more energy for our next game to try to make sure we’re just as good in the semi-finals.
“I’m the proudest man on earth because I gave the players a very tough tactical assignment and the way they believed until the last second was incredible.
“It is special. We can’t let them [fans] down back home now.”
Did Neymar dive cost Brazil?
Brazil striker Neymar’s diving and exaggeration has made lots of headlines in the World Cup – and the BBC pundits think that might have cost his side a legitimate penalty.
The Paris St-Germain player went down easily after going past Fellaini – and was lucky to avoid a booking. Five minutes later, Vincent Kompany appeared to foul Gabriel Jesus but no penalty was awarded. The referee did not go to view the incident on a screen.
BBC One co-commentator Danny Murphy said: “I don’t know how they can see what we have just seen and not give a penalty. That’s a huge let-off for Belgium. Kompany got very lucky.”
Shearer had a theory after the game: “This [Neymar dive] is the reason I think they didn’t get the call of the VAR five or 10 minutes later. If the guys are looking for any dodgy or iffy decisions, it’s going to go against Brazil because of that.
“That doesn’t help his team because of that blatant dive and trying to cheat. I think they’ve been punished because of that.”
Klinsmann said of the tackle on Jesus: “It’s a clear penalty. Do the VAR leverage the dive of Neymar? What are they saying to the referee?”