Belgium survived Japan’s sucker punch

Belgium survived Japan’s sucker punch and reminded themselves of what they are capable of ahead of a showdown with Brazil at the World Cup.

Pressure does funny things to even the most talented players.

With the eyes of the football world upon them, Belgium served up a strange blend of keeping it cool and trying desperately hard early in their match against Japan at Rostov Arena, pinging around those causal passes that are intended, a little too overtly, to communicate a sense of relaxation among players burdened by the accumulated weight of national expectation.

Intermittently, the Red Devils’ clutch of world-class stars – here Eden Hazard, there Kevin De Bruyne, now Romelu Lukaku – suddenly veered away from that transparently artificial quest for rhythm and a paroxysm of direct, desperate attacking play would ensue.

Stubbornly, though, the right pass in the final third refused to fall. On each occasion, a perfectly timed Japan block or tackle would deprive Belgium of the yearned-for chance that all in the stadium knew was theirs by rights.

As the seconds and minutes ticked by, and the Samurai Blue grew bolder in their defiance, the recent fate that befell Germany and then Spain began to loom as a shadow over the contest.

At a greater remove, the more terrifying spectre of era-defining failure began to creep along the Don River and envelope the stadium’s Belgian contingent in a cloying fog of anxiety.

After serving as a hapless witness to their torment from the purgatory of the technical area, Roberto Martinez was obliged to act to rectify the deficiencies that his formation and tactics were forcing the players to endure.

We’ll never know which course of action he would have taken, as Japan pounced to tear up the script, and transform the contest from one of lumbering cat and dogged mouse to a chaotic shootout.

First, there was Genki Haraguchi’s clinical finish across Thibaut Courtois and into the far side-netting in the 48th minute.

Belgium barely had time to process the shock of going behind before Takashi Inui lashed home a stunning long-range strike to double the lead four minutes later and leave Martinez and his side in desperate trouble.

Now, here at last, was the moment of truth.

Questionable coach and supremely talented players alike initially had no answer to their traumatically reduced circumstances, as De Bruyne laboured too far away from the danger zone and Lukaku found himself shackled by his team-mates’ lack of movement and creativity.

Then, a roll of the dice. Nuanced and subtle, it was not, but it worked.

On came Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini, and the challenge posed to Japan shifted from one of managing the opposition’s time and space to the arm wrestle they had dreaded all along.

Duly, set-pieces began to pile up in Belgium’s favour and the pressure soon told, Jan Vertonghen steering a bizarre looping header over Eiji Kawashima and in off the underside of the crossbar to make it 2-1 with 20 minutes to go.

The more familiar figure of blunt instrument extraordinaire Fellaini then reprised his practiced Manchester United role by heading home the equaliser.

Japan, having recovered from the introduction of the battering rams, looked to have survived to reach extra-time, only for the clinical, devastating Belgium absent throughout the game to suddenly appear.

The quick thinking of Courtois allowed De Bruyne to release Thomas Meunier, whose pass into the area was cleverly left by Lukaku for Chadli to slide home with almost the last kick of the game.

Belgium will now enter the quarter-finals buoyed by the euphoria of a comeback crowned by a goal scored in the devastating style that all have come to expect from them.

And the identity of their next opponents, pre-tournament favourites Brazil, could yet work in their favour, with Tite’s Selecao surely unlikely to take a backwards stylistic step on Friday in Kazan, where fireworks worthy of France’s win over Argentina could be expected.