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World Cup 2018: Belgium on Brink of Glory After Martinez Surprise

The quarter-final hurdle had been reached again by Belgium. Their very minimum aim in Russia. After back to back exits at this round in the last two tournaments, Brazil were not the quarter-final Belgium wanted. Roberto Martinez called on them to finish second in their group, and go down England’s current route to Moscow. However, the former Everton boss was left trying to chart a way past the tournament favourites. And that’s exactly what he did.

From a second round clash with Japan that teetered on the brink of disaster, Belgium sprung the biggest tactical surprise we’ve seen in Russia, and knocked out Brazil with a 2-1 victory. This feels like a huge moment in Belgian football, as their golden generation have finally taken the major step they needed. Here we’re looking back over their victory, and the effect it might have on their future.

Also See: Key Player Statistics for Belgium this Summer

Tactical Switch Shuts Down Brazil

Martinez hinted briefly at tactical changes following the Japan game. However, the fact that the team was presented in their usual 3-4-3 system right before kick-off shows the surprise the manager pulled. He switched things up to a 4-3-3, which basically matched Brazil man for man.

Ahead of this quarter-final, we predicted the key areas where this match would be decided. Martinez clearly focused in on these areas too, because his changes won all the main battles. His trio of Marouane Fellaini, Axel Witsel and Nacer Chadli helped to match Brazil’s midfield three. Both Fellaini and Chadli stepped in to cover the full-backs to the outside, while all three also protected their back two.

In attack, Belgium’s surprise threw the Brazilians. Kevin De Bruyne was in his most advanced position of the tournament, and he made the most of that with the second goal. Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard gave the full-backs hell, and penned in Brazil during a thrilling first half. It all came from Martinez, the man who is known in England for relegating Wigan Athletic.

Hazard and De Bruyne Peak on Biggest Stage

World Cup 2018 - Belgium Eden Hazard

The surprising part of Martinez’s switch was that he went against his biggest success so far. He found a system which gave Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne the space they needed. This time, they were effectively operating as a strike partnership. That seemed like a recipe for disaster, but both players were fantastic. De Bruyne offered a counter attacking threat, while Hazard was the clear man of the match.

The Chelsea man was brilliant throughout, offering a threat all day long. He was always an option for a pass, while in the dying minutes he became a battering ram. He selflessly acted as the lone forward late on, with his mazy runs and turns offering relief to the defence, which Brazil were pelting. Both players have been growing in to this tournament, but this felt like a new high on the international stage for both of them.

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A Defining Moment for Lukaku

Belgium World Cup 2018 Hazard Lukaku

While Belgium’s creative duo were fantastic, special recognition goes to Lukaku. He didn’t score in the quarter-final, so he didn’t exactly make his mark, but overall he was fantastic while playing out of position. The forward started from the right of the three, taking him away from the Brazilian centre-halves. The Man United forward worked hard all night, using his strength magnificently well to help the team.

He’s always been seen as a goalscorer who will punish the smaller sides. However, Lukaku has perhaps been limited to that role by too many managers. Martinez has tried to make the forward more of an influence in the side, and that was the case here. As Hazard pointed out, they need the option of Lukaku up top to succeed. They certainly had that here, and the forward sacrificed so much through the game to keep the Brazilians at bay.

Some Negatives, Including Vertonghen

The display wasn’t entirely perfect, especially as they slowed down after half-time. There are some worries for Martinez ahead of the France clash. Their switch to a back four could have unnerved some members of their backline, although Jan Vertonghen struggled yet again. He was at fault for the opener against Japan, and he looked shaky throughout. That continued into Friday night’s clash, as he was at fault for Brazil’s goal.

Vertonghen was shunted out to the left, so he was always going to struggle at times. Renato Augusto’s header wasn’t entirely hit fault, it was a team lapse that put them under pressure. That came as the team started to lag, after Martinez pondered over substitutions. While his tactical plan worked, he does deserve criticism for his delay in making changes to keep hold of their advantage.

Is this Belgium’s Moment?

Belgium celebrate their winner against Japan in the Last 16 of the 2018 World Cup

Belgium’s focus now heads to St Petersburg, for their clash with France. It will be an entirely different Belgium side who prepare for that game, as this victory has changed their place in international football. They were always seen as the good team, who will come up short. However, they’ve now delivered the biggest scalp of the summer. Belgium seem to have finally peaked, but just how far can they go?

Winning Euro 2020 seems like a real ambition for this side, but they’ve got to be thinking about the present. They face a huge week, one which could see Belgium crowned champions of the world. The winner of their semi will be huge favourites in the final, and that could propel them on for a generation. This is a decisive week for the nation, who now finally sit among the elite of world football. Their golden generation could be about to deliver the biggest gold of all, with two more victories sending them to the top of world football. That’s certainly not bad for a manager who Everton sacked 26 months ago.

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