The Asians’ substitutions cost them a quarterfinal spot in the World Cup.
In what was an instant FIFA World Cup classic, Belgium pulled off a dramatic 3-2 win over Japan to progress into the quarterfinals of the tournament. What had seemed like a one-sided affair on paper turned out to be a highly competitive match in which the Japanese took the Belgian “golden generation” to the absolute limit and demanded the absolute best from them.
It was a match which finally revealed the discreet flaws in Belgium’s system, with their poor midfield and stretched defense being victims to some suffering from the Japanese. After barely scraping through to the knockout stages thanks to the FIFA Fair Play rule, coach Akira Nishino showed bravery in allowing his team to take the game to Belgium, rather than just sitting back like every other team had done against them in the group stage.
It was Japan’s ability to press Belgium high up the pitch and take advantage of their vulnerability, that saw the Red Devils being exposed on numerous occasions. They started looking shaky right from the first half, when Thibaut Courtois almost let one through his legs. It seemed like Belgium’s questionable defense motivated Japan to come back stronger in the second half, which is when the game really picked up.
While Belgium did create a chance or two, mostly thanks to the creativity of Dries Mertens in the first half, they were not convincing enough. Things turned nightmarish for them in the second half, when Japan came out looking unstoppable and put the Red Devils to the sword. The Blue Samurai started to find Belgium’s weak spots and scored the opening goal in the 48th minute thanks to Genki Haraguchi, who pounced on Jan Vertonghen‘s slow movement to power his shot past Courtois.
Japan cranked it up even more after the goal and rather than just parking the bus, they started looking deadly on the counter-attack and Takashi Inui’s fantastic attempt gave them a two-goal lead. Everything seemed to be lost for Belgium, who were looking like they had succumbed to the pressure of the chokers’ tag, before the resourceful Roberto Martinez decided to make some changes.
Out came Fellaini and Nacer Chadli, which changed Belgium’s system to a more traditional four-man defense with Fellaini playing almost as a second striker. While his counterpart had smartly made his substitutions, Nishino’s inability to make crucial changes eventually cost Japan. They started looking tired from all the running and looked to have run out of steam.
Belgium used their physical prowess and energy to their advantage, with Jan Vertonghen redeeming himself by pulling one back with a stunning lob which sailed over Eiji Kawashima’s head and into the goal. It was an old-school brand of football which helped Belgium, with Fellaini rising highest to meet Eden Hazard’s fantastic cross to equalize for Belgium.
After that point, the game was extremely open and Japan looked to go for the home-run rather than try and force extra-time. But, it was Belgium’s changed system which they found difficult to decrypt and the substitutions paid dividends for the Red Devils.
In the end, Belgium proved their world-class potential with a stunning counter-attack which was coolly finished off by Chadli. They had silenced their doubters and lived to die another day. But, if they were to persist with a similar system which almost ruined them, things could get even messier for Martinez’s side in their highly anticipated clash against Tite’s Brazil.