Graveyard of champions, playfield of braves

Amol Gokhale
Saturday, 7 July 2018

Belgium outwit Brazil with 2-1 victory book a semi-finals date with France

Moscow: Kazan Arena in Kazan has been a graveyard of the World Champions. Firstly, it ended Germany's title defence in the Group Stage; secondly, Lionel Messi and Argentina were sent packing by France and on Friday night, hosting the final World Cup game, it claimed five-times champions - Brazil.

'A modern day classic' and one of the best games of 2018 FIFA World Cup, as it will be called, saw Belgium advance to the semi-finals for the first time since 1986 with a 2-1 victory over Brazil.

It was a game won on the tactical board by Roberto Martinez, who tweaked his game plan in space of two days to change the course of the game, while Tite, struck with his so far successful 4-2-3-1 formation, came undone.

One must go back to Belgium's Round of 16 match, and rewind it till the 65th minute. The Red Devils were struggling to break down Japan and were trailing 2-0. Martinez brought on Marouane Fellaini in the centre of the park to add to his side's aerial superiority and put Nacer Chadli on the wings.

Those two changes turned the game around as Belgium won the game 3-2 with Fellaini scoring the equaliser and Chadli finding the last-minute winner on a counter-attack launched by Kevin De Bruyne.

Tweaked plans
On Friday against Brazil, Martinez showed his tactical acumen, as his two substitutes from the previous game, were in the Playing XI.

Manchester United's Fellaini paired up with Alex Witsel, while West Brom's Chadli shuttling down the left flank.

The tactical line-up and the actual line-up of Belgium looks different with one major change. A 3-4-3 formation, with De Bruyn starting as a false nine with captain Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku flanking him.

On the eve of the match, Lukaku had addressed the media and looked out of words when asked about a potential weak link in the Brazilian side, suggesting as if they had none. But Martinez had certainly found one with a plan devised two days before the game.

Brilliant execution
One will second the thoughts of Vincent Kompany when he said that Belgium are no match to Brazil when it comes to individual talent, but as a collective team, we will see what we can do. A perfect first-half display, a brave second-half where they absorbed immense pressure from Brazil and little bit of luck, which was on their side. That was the collective answer the tiny European nation had.

With the freedom to roam around and attack up-front, De Bruyn not just ventured forward, he dropped deep in the midfield to give his side numerical superiority which frustrated Brazil.

One must accept that Brazil almost drew the first blood when Thiago Silva hit the post, but it was again De Bruyn whose pass to Fellaini, who scuffed his shot, earned Red Devils the corner.

A corner taken by Chadli was met by a run of Vincent Kompany as his Manchester City teammates - Gabriel Jesus and Fernandinho jumped at near post for the before the latter's last touch off elbow took the ball past Alisson to give Red Devils early lead.

Doubling the advantage
Buoyed by the return of Marcelo at left back, Brazil attacked with greater intensity down that flank with Neymar, Marcelo, and Philippe Coutinho causing Belgium problems.

Brazil went down by one more goal after a Neymar corner was cleared by Fellaini towards his Manchester United team-mate, Lukaku. He then held off two markers, gets past them and runs through the middle as Hazard moved into space on the left while De Bruyne occupied space on the right, with another Red Shirt beyond him, slicing open the Brazil defence.

The ball comes to De Bruyne and he fired a rocket past Alisson into the far corner from the edge of the box to put Belium 2-0 ahead and in the drivers' seat.

Brazil rally back
Tite reacted to his team's first-half show and brought on Roberto Firmino in place of Willian and soon winger Douglas Costa for Gabriel Jesus in the 58th minute. But the change from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 had worked for Brazil courtesy Firmino's work rate as Canary's pinned back Red Devils into their own half, leaving Hazard and Lukaku isolated upfront.

Serbian referee Milorad Mazic had an excellent game as he waved off several soft penalty appeals from Brazil, especially from Neymar and pointed to his earpiece indicating that, "If it's a penalty, I will get to know about it," as Kompany's tackle on Jesus had looked little on the edge.

Juventus winger Costa added pace down the right flank, which Fagner could not provide earlier as Brazil kept piling on the pressure until they got the lifeline in the 76th minute.

Philippe Coutinho, who had seen his shots parried away by outstanding Thibaut Courtois, lifted the ball over Brazilian backline for the substitute Renato Augusto to head home past Courtois.

In the hindsight, his miss couple of minutes later, with Courtois rooted to the spot might haunt him for sometime, but Belgium had done enough to not suffer the same fate which they inflicted on Japan.

Luck favours the brave
Luck favours the brave they say and how lucky Belgium were to not concede the second goal as they were kept in the game by Chelsea custodian Courtois.

Any of the shots parried away by him could have been easily bundled home on any other day, or his fingertip save in the 94th minute from Neymar shot could have found the back of the net on another day. But it simply wasn't to be for Tite's men.

The next step
As far as Brazil as concerned, anything but a victory is considered a failure. But is this campaign really a failure for them? Certainly not! This Brazil team is far better than that of 2014 and has an excellent record under Tite, who revived the team after the 7-1 debacle.

There will be some harsh words for the team back home but one must not forget that the playing field is now much even and it doesn't matter how small or big your country is. During the Group Stage, France coach Didier Deschamps said that even the smaller teams are well prepared and it was and is clearly visible in this tournament.

None of the big teams has found it easy and elimination of Germany, Argentina, Spain and now Brazil shows just that. But, just like Germany has shown their faith in Joachim Loew, Brazil must allow Tite to continue the process of building his team. He will have an abundance of talent at his disposal but, Brazil should accept the fact that they won't win any more games on the back of history they have got.

As far as Belgium is concerned, they will now face in-form French side in St Petersburg on July 10 in the first semi-final. Deschamps men are definitely playing the best football at the moment and will certainly pose a different challenge for Roberto Martinez to devise a new plan.

But the 2-1 win over Brazil answers one question, "Has 'Red Devils' done enough to strike fear in their opposition?"

"Yes, they have!"

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