Belgium 3, Japan 2
Belgium’s quarterfinal meeting with Brazil later this week will be among the most anticipated showdowns of this World Cup, featuring two creative sides with championship aspirations. But that meeting will be hard-pressed to top what came before it: Belgium’s frantic 3-2 comeback win over Japan on Monday, which was topped by a glorious rush the length of the field and a last-second strike.
With about a minute remaining in stoppage time, favored Belgium was knotted at 2 with a Japanese side that had never been past the round of 16. Japan had a chance to secure the lead off a free kick, but nothing came of it, and extra time seemed inevitable.
But Belgium regained possession of the ball, and suddenly it was if you were watching “The Flash.” Kevin Du Bruyne started Belgium’s fast break, slicing up the middle of the field. After a few quick passes, and a brilliant decision by Romelu Lukaku to let a centering pass go through, Nacer Chadli found the ball in full stride. He tapped it past Japan goaltender Eiji Kawashima, and just like that Belgium was on to the quarterfinals.
Belgium, according to ESPN, became the first team to win a World Cup knockout round match after trailing by at least two goals since West Germany in 1970.
After a scoreless first half, the Red Devils found themselves down 2-0 after Japan scored a pair of goals within four minutes early in the second half. Those were Japan’s first-ever goals in the World Cup’s knockout stage. It’s been a challenging go for the favorites this summer, and now it seemed as though Belgium would join heavyweights Germany, Spain, Argentina and Portugal on the sidelines.
But FIFA’s third-ranked team had other notions.
Jan Vertonghen got his team on the board in the tail end of the 69th minute, when he may not have even been aiming for the goal. Vertonghen headed a ball from well outside the box, and it gently curved into the far side of the net, over a helpless Kawashima. Belgium’s equalizing goal was also a header, this one courtesy of Marouane Fellaini, who rose above the Japan defense to nod it in.
With five minutes remaining in regulation, Belgium created two opportunities to take the lead, but its two shots were met by two incredible saves from Kawashima.
But then, with one minute of playing time left, Belgium got that breakaway. Fans in Belgium erupted in celebration, as confetti and streamers fell from the sky. Their so-called “Golden Generation” would stay together for at least one more match.
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In what may have been one of soccer’s most memorable fast breaks, Belgium took the ball coast-to-coast in the dying moments to secure a 3-2 win over Japan. Kevin De Bruyne started the play, taking the ball swiftly up the middle before passing it to Thomas Meunier. Meunier passed it to Romelu Lukaku, who then let it through for Nacer Chadli to finish the play with an unforgettable goal.
The score capped a second-half comeback from two goals down for the Belgians, who will now face Brazil in the quarterfinals.
Kawashima saves the day
Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima made back-to-back saves late in the second half that prevented Belgium from taking the lead. In the first, he deflected a header to the side of the goal, diving to his right. He then hopped up just in time to deflect another, this time pushing it up and over the net.
And we have a tied game on our hands! Belgium scored an equalizing goal in the 73rd minute off another header. Eden Hazard curled a cross into the middle where Marouane Fellaini, off the bench, rose above the Japan defense to head it in. Belgium has now scored eight second-half goals in its four World Cup games.
Belgium finally gets on the board, courtesy of Jan Vertonghen. Was he actually aiming for the goal? Maybe, maybe not but a goal is a goal. Vertonghen looped a header in the far corner of the net to cut Japan’s lead to one.
Make it 2-0, as Japan doubled its lead just five minutes after scoring the game’s first goal. This time, it was Takashi Inui who fired the shot into the bottom right-hand corner of the net. Before that five-minute stretch, Japan had never scored a goal in the World Cup’s knockout stage.
Japan takes the lead two minutes into the second half. On a quick counter, Genki Haraguchi sent the ball to the far side of the goal, past Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, for his first World Cup goal. This marks the first time Belgium has trailed in this World Cup.
Halftime update: Still scoreless
Heading into the lockers after the first 45 minutes, Belgium and Japan are deadlocked at zero. After Belgium’s third scoreless first half of the World Cup, it will look to continue its pattern of being a second-half team; the Belgians scored three second-half goals against Panama, and beat England, 1-0, with a second-half strike.
While neither team has been able to score, both have come close.
Belgium has put a good amount of pressure on Japan’s defense, getting off 10 shots in the first half, but Japan, which sits 58 sports behind Belgium in the FIFA world rankings, has held its own.
Given to Japan’s Gaku Shibasaki, who tripped up Eden Hazard, in the 39th minute.
Even play so far
Belgium is the heavy favorite against Japan, but midway through the first half, Japan is hanging in there. The two teams have split the possession 51-49, narrowly favored in Japan’s direction; Japan managed to take two shots, compared to Belgium’s one. Those aren’t the only similar numbers: Both teams’ passing accuracy is 85 percent and both teams committed three fouls in the early going.
Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku sat out of Belgium’s group stage finale against England with minor injuries but are back in the starting lineup for the round of 16.
Belgium enters the round of 16 with new motivation following the early exits of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo from the knockout stage. Midfielder Eden Hazard explained that the ousting of the world’s top players is “good for us,” because it clears heavyweights Argentina and Portugal from Belgium’s championship path. Still, Belgium now is staring at a possible meeting with tournament favorite Brazil in the quarterfinals, with the winner of France Uruguay waiting beyond that.
And Hazard is not letting his team sleep on a Japanese team that only qualified for the round of 16 via FIFA’s fair play tiebreaker.
“If we think this is going to be easy [against Japan], we may lose,” Hazard said (via the Telegraph), “so we need to be very serious, very focused right from the beginning.”
A loss would be a devastating blow to Belgium’s so-called “golden generation” of players that was developed by the small country’s youth club system. The group reached the quarters four years ago in Brazil, before bowing out to Argentina.
Japan, meanwhile, should be well-rested after sitting six players during the final group-play match, a decision that nearly derailed their bid to go through. The Samurai Blue have never moved beyond the round of 16.
Belgium (First place, Group G)
- Previous results: Defeated Panama, 3-0. Defeated Tunisia, 5-2. Defeated England 1-0.
- Best World Cup finish: Fourth place, 1986.
- Notable: Belgium’s “golden generation” is in its prime, and fans and media believe this is the best chance the team has at making a World Cup championship run.
- FIFA world ranking: 3. ELO world ranking: 4.
Japan (Second place, Group H)
- Previous results: Defeated Colombia, 2-1. Drew with Senegal, 2-2. Lost to Poland, 1-0.
- Best World Cup finish: Round of 16, 2002 and 2010.
- Notable: Japan has only won two of its nine World Cup games against European sides. It has never scored a goal in the round of 16.
- FIFA world ranking: 61. ELO world ranking: 43.
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