The 2018 World Cup: Will The Real Belgium Please Stand Up?
Fear and laughter, we’re told, come from the same same root buried deep in our primitive subconscious minds, and after last night’s tumultuous game between Belgium and Japan in Rostov, it’s extremely difficult to believe that agony and ecstasy aren’t similarly evolutionarily bonded. And let’s make no mistake about this whatsoever. For almost seventy minutes at the Rostov Arena last night Belgium’s team of all attacking talents were on the ropes against Japan, an embarrassment of attacking riches rendered almost entirely ineffective by an opposition with a game plan being rigidly stuck to and an attacking flourish broadly unseen in previous games.
This World Cup finals, however, has a habit of upsetting apple carts, and as it progresses it’s finding increasingly unlikely ways of doing so. Few would have anticipated that, with the glistening jewels that stud the Belgian midfield and attack, it would require the intervention of Marouane Fellaini and Naser Chadli to spin this match entirely on its head, but there have been points during this tournament at which all the audience could do was to throw its head back and laugh at the ironies that international football can throw at us.
Even at half-time in Rostov last night, we had little idea of the drama to come. The first half had been more a sparring match than a football match, the experienced Japanese team pushing at poking at Belgium, who in turn looked at times like three-quarters of a team. A goalless half-time score didn’t feel as though it would last, though, and early in the second half Japan found a way through and then repeated the trick, first through Genki Haraguchi, teed up by Shinji Kagawa, and then four minutes later with a beautiful finish from Takashi Inui, who has impressed throughout the tournament.
Seven minutes into the second half, then, Japan were two goals up and this had the feeling of being a Belgian performance that was unravelling in exactly the way that we would have expected before the match, a papier maché defence coupled with attacking options that looked considerably short of the sum of their parts. Roberto Martinez has become something of a figure of fun in some circles, and we can only guess as to whether the decision to thrown on Fellaini and Chadli was part of a masterpiece of tactical overhaul or a desperate last throw of the dice of a man who knew that he’d be out of a job before the end of this week if somebody, anybody didn’t dig him out of the whole in which he’d found himself.
The glimmer of daylight for Belgium arrived four minutes after the substitution and had more than a hint of fluke about it, as Jan Vertonghen’s header looped up and over at an almost impossible angle before dropping over the line. The entire timbre of the game changed in this one movement. Belgium were now chasing the game, whilst Japan players who might have hitherto been carried along by the elation of their lead suddenly found themselves defending with increasing desperation in order to cling onto a lead that suddenly felt very vulnerable indeed. Five minutes after Vertonghen’s intervention, came the equaliser. Cometh the hour, cometh the disco bog brush on stilts. Hazard’s cross was stabbed over the line by Fellaini’s bulbous head, and now Japan were fighting to stay in the game.
What followed was perhaps the most thrilling four minutes that this tournament could offer. Stoppage-time in knockout matches can occasionally be an exercise in winding down ahead of an extra thirty minutes of football, but both teams continued to press, Japan finding the space for two shots on goal, both blocked by Thibaut Courtois, before the evening reached its denouement. It could scarcely have been more dramatic. Kevin de Bruyne surged forward like a rapier thrust, carrying the ball fully half the length of the pitch before releasing the ball to Meunier. As he crossed, Romelu Lukaku peeled diagonally forward, a dummy run which opened up an ocean of space behind him, letting the ball run for Chadli to sweep the ball into the goal and claim victory for Belgium.
There was barely time to even restart the game. The Japanese players collapsed to the turf, with nothing to show for an evening during which they had looked for long periods plenty capable of winning this match with something to spare. The joyous disbelief of the Belgian team, however, cannot overwrite the fact that they are flawed, defensively profligate in a competition that isn’t known for allowing teams to simply outscore others to victory. That defence will have to be tightened for the Brazil game if they are to progress further but they are at least still in the competition, and it didn’t look for much of last night as though they would be by this morning.
For a little over half an hour yesterday afternoon, Brazil were labouring in a similar way in which Belgium would in the evening. Mexico were all vim and vigour in the heat of Samara before running out of steam and slowly grinding to a halt. They got into the early stages of the second half before conceding a tap-in to Neymar, and from there on there was little doubt that Brazil were going to close the game down with the minimum of difficulty. Another tap-in towards the end from Roberto Firmino sealed the win, but in all honesty Brazil should have had the match wrapped up well before then and it’s probably telling that Mexico’s most effective player on the day was goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who pulled off a string of excellent saves just to keep his team in the tournament, albeit very temporarily.
We need to talk about Neymar, though. Midway through the second half he tangled with Miguel Layún, which resulted in the Mexican player treading on his ankle. This seems to have been missed by both the referee and the VAR drones, but after the match Mark Clattenburg, still living one of the weirdest existences of this World Cup for ITV in his hermetically sealed truck, presumably subsisting on Pot Noodles, Red Bull and, between matches, an increasingly worn looking VHS tape called “Clive Thomas’s Greatest Misses”, stated that he would have awarded a red card against Layún for serious foul play, and there’s a case to be made that repeated viewing of this stamp makes his case compelling. The contact didn’t however, require Neymar to start rolling around as though shot in the back yet again, and there were further examples of him swan-diving throughout this match. And it’s exhausting.
It’s to be presumed that Neymar doesn’t think very much of what others think of him, and it’s probably a good job, too. He is obviously an outrageously talented player and he even seems to be developing into a team player as this World Cup progresses, but the constant diving, mugging for the cameras and over-exaggeration may well be what comes to be remembered for in this tournament, regardless of anything else that he achieves. And it’s entirely plausible that this may all come back to bite him on the backside. He should already have been sent off once in this tournament, for a dive and then petulantly throwing the ball away when called out on it during Brazil’s opening match against Costa Rica. Few would completely rule out a similar set of circumstances with a slightly different outcome coming to pass before this tournament is out. Brazil deserve better, and more pointedly Neymar deserves better. He doesn’t need to be constantly seeking to game the system during matches. He is, in a quite literal sense, better than that.