Belgium claim bronze in forgettable but decent affair

The unfortunate nature of third-placed play-offs is that their intrigue is based on things which are not relevant to the outcome of the tournament. Both sides are already eliminated when the clash takes place, and the nature of semi-final defeat means that they have often come from agonising losses. This particular third-placed play-off, between England and Belgium, didn’t look any different. England had a chance to avenge their group stage defeat to the Belgians, but they hadn’t looked too worried when they were losing and it hardly seemed likely that they had been waiting for their opportunity to exact revenge. In the end they didn’t get their revenge, and they didn’t seem to care too deeply. There was also the golden boot battle, although it hardly seemed likely that Romelu Lukaku would score the two goals needed to wrest the title of the tournament’s top scorer from slightly lucky English skipper Harry Kane. He didn’t score any.

Bizarrely, neither side took the field in their traditional colours, even though it was hard to see any clash between Belgium’s traditional red and England’s traditional white. Still, FIFA decided a kit clash existed, so Belgium wore yellow and England, oddly, wore red. Such bureaucratic matters didn’t seem to trouble Belgium, and it didn’t take them long to find the back of the net. Lukaku received the ball in the centre of the field, and one well-placed ball unlocked England’s defence and picked out Nacer Chadli. Chadli was streaming into space on the left, and his cross fell perfectly for Thomas Meunier in a dangerous position. Meunier’s incisive run allowed him to receive the ball on the edge of the six-yard box, and he had no trouble putting it past Jordan Pickford from such close range.

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Thomas Meunier (right) scores Belgium’s first goal past Jordan Pickford. The goal left England needing to chase the game, a task they didn’t apply themselves to until the last 20 minutes.

Then the game broke down a little, as neither team really threatened. Mainly, Belgium’s moves looked dangerous and then fell apart after attempts at telepathic passing which left a lot to be desired. The prime example of this was Kevin de Bruyne’s no-look backheel for Lukaku, which was delivered into a dangerous spot. It would have been a brilliant play, had the big striker not been positioned some five metres from where de Bruyne’s pass was aimed. One chance came when Lukaku’s pass somehow slipped through to de Bruyne, who seemed surprised to be receiving the ball, let off a half-hearted shot and nearly scored with the half-hearted shot as said shot was deflected dangerously. In defence, Vincent Kompany perfectly split the middle of Jan Vertonghen and Chadli, and everyone could only watch in disbelief and slight disinterest as the ball rolled out for a throw-in. In the middle of it all, Lukaku had a genuine chance one-on-one with Pickford, but he fluffed his lines with a heavy touch and the ball was claimed easily by the English goalkeeper.

As it progressed, the game developed into a collection of disjointed moments which didn’t really take a defined pattern. Belgium were mostly on top, but they never really broke past England’s five-man defence, and sometimes England looked decent too. Both teams gave the impression that the score didn’t really matter, and it was easy to forget that Belgium were ahead 1-0 as the teams went about their business. They weren’t exactly uncaring, and it wasn’t exactly poor quality, but it was easily forgettable football punctuated by the occasional moment of skill or the occasional attacking gaffe. Such gaffes were usually met with indifference, and such moments of skill inevitably came to nothing. There weren’t many chances, but those that did come often arrived with no warning, and were sometimes even accidents (like when Youri Tielemans miscued a shot and presented Toby Alderweireld with an unexpected chance to volley inside the box).

The start of the second half didn’t represent much of a deviation from the haphazard pattern of the first. Any chances, like Jesse Lingard’s dangerous ball across goal which missed Kane’s diving attempt at volleying it home, weren’t telegraphed, and both teams were about as sloppy as ever. Belgium took a particularly pointless corner as Eden Hazard rolled the ball to Dries Mertens, who attempted a cross. It was blocked by the man given the role of blocking the cross: and flew out for another corner. In short, a few seconds had been wasted, and absolutely nothing had been gained by either side. A few minutes later, both Kane and Kompany ended up on the ground after Kane attempted a volley and just fell on his backside. It wasn’t clear why Kompany was down, but there was little time to dwell on it as Belgium attempted a dangerous-looking counter-attack which fell through.

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Eric Dier (left) watches as club teammate Toby Alderweireld (centre) clears his chip off the goal line and out. Dier’s shot was the closest England came to getting an equaliser.

Suddenly (neither side was exerting enough pressure on the other to actually create anything that wasn’t sudden), England nearly scored. Eric Dier and Marcus Rashford combined beautifully to play Dier through, and the powerful midfielder managed to chip Thibaut Courtois. Unfortunately for him, Alderweireld reacted quicker than anyone, and he was already sliding in to clear the shot off the line. At that point, the momentum of the game turned. Belgium had been turning the ball over all game and suffering no consequences. Then England, 70 minutes in, finally started to look threatening after receiving errant passes, and the results were instantaneous. They had some dangerous set pieces and a few good chances, and they looked set to break through.

Counter-intuitively, England’s late offensive tipped the balance of the match firmly in Belgium’s favour. Space began to open up when they won the ball back, and they looked increasingly dangerous on the break. De Bruyne, Hazard and Mertens started to combine, and Meunier nearly nabbed a second when he slammed a volley to Pickford’s right and forced the English goalkeeper into an excellent save. Pickford’s face was a mix of exasperation and petulance as the ball moved back up the field. Eventually, one of Belgium’s counter-attacks broke through, killing off England’s hopes once and for all. De Bruyne provided the pass, splitting the defence open and picking out the run of Hazard, who gave Pickford no chance as he stroked the ball into the bottom corner.

After that, there was very little to play for, as Belgium commanded the rest of the game and continued to look the more dangerous side as the increasingly ragged-looking English stretched themselves further and further in pursuit of a goal that would never come. At one point Kompany surged forward from his home in the heart of defence, pushing into the box and hoping for a cross from Hazard. Hazard’s cross wasn’t great, and Kompany’s avaricious attempt to hunt a goal left him caught out of position. It didn’t matter too much, as England’s slow build-up allowed the veteran defender to sheepishly trot back into place. Belgium’s win was a nice way to finish their tournament, and the bronze medals they received are a nice trinket to mark a truly great generation of Belgian footballers. For England, who had nothing to lose and have a bright future ahead of them, the loss is unlikely to sting too badly. In the end, it didn’t really matter to anyone, but the game wasn’t too bad. That’s about as good as third-place play-offs get.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Belgium 2 (Meunier 4, E Hazard 82)
England 0
Referee: Alireza Faghani (Irn)
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, Tielemans (Dembélé 78), Witsel, Chadli (Vermaelen 39); de Bruyne, Lukaku (Mertens 60), E Hazard.
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Jones, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Loftus-Cheek (Alli 84), Dier, Delph, Rose (Lingard 46); Sterling (Rashford 46), Kane.

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Belgium’s players celebrate after receiving their bronze medals. The medals will be a nice trinket for a great Belgian team, but they won’t make up for the disappointment of a semi-final defeat.

Top 5
1. Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
Meunier wasn’t always as clinical as he could have been, but he looked fresher than anyone else thanks to the suspension that ruled him out of the semi-final and he had a massive impact on the game as a result. He found the scoresheet early, and he created plenty of opportunities for Belgium with his hard running.
2. John Stones (England)
It wouldn’t be fair to suggest that Stones was responsible for England’s semi-final defeat, but he was certainly responsible for Croatia’s winning goal. The third-place play-off gave him a chance to atone for his costly error, and he did so with a strong defensive performance. If something needed blocking, he was there, and he denied Belgium on a few occasions.
3. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
De Bruyne’s plans didn’t always come off, mostly because his teammates often failed to understand their role in them, but he had the ball in the final third more than any other Belgian and he was always dangerous. He was the only Belgian capable of breaking down England’s massed defence, and when he caught them on the break Belgium always threatened to score.
4. Eric Dier (England)
Dier played more of a back seat role throughout the tournament, and he seized his chance when he was drafted into the team for Jordan Henderson. He came into his own in the second half, bossing the midfield and using his physicality and skill to give Belgium some real problems.
5. Youri Tielemans (Belgium)
This game may mark the end of Belgium’s golden generation, with most of their starters set to be past their prime when Qatar 2022 rolls around. In Tielemans, however, the Belgians may have found someone who can become one of their key players in years to come. His influence waned in the second half, but Tielemans showed that Belgian football still has a bright future with a good effort.

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France hold firm to keep Belgium at bay

In the dying moments of Belgium’s highly-anticipated semi-final clash with France, French midfield enforcer Paul Pogba stood in the corner. The French were seeking to rule out a Belgian comeback, and Pogba was straddling the ball with a number of Belgians attempting to shove him out of the way so they could force the ball upfield. They never got the chance. Eventually, Pogba committed a foul. A few seconds later, the final whistle blew. France were in the World Cup final. In the end, it was a rather anticlimactic finish, with Belgium never really testing France after going behind. A well-taken corner and a simple header was the foundation on which a simple win was built.

France went on the front foot from the first blast of Andrés Cunha’s whistle, with Kylian Mbappé attempting an enterprising run down the right wing just seconds after kick-off. It was Belgium, however, who seized the early initiative. The Belgians took control of possession and territory, with France happy to sit back and absorb the pressure. Eventually, chances began to arrive. Eden Hazard had a couple of dangerous shots, one of which was just deflected over the bar by Raphaël Varane’s header. A Belgian corner fell for Toby Alderweireld, who tested Hugo Lloris by wheeling around onto his left foot and sending a one-time shot fizzing towards goal, but the French keeper’s diving save prevented him from finding the back of the net. Belgium were starting to ramp up the pressure and France needed to respond.

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Samuel Umtiti celebrates after scoring France’s first goal from a well-delivered corner. Belgium weren’t able to recover the deficit as France held on for a 1-0 win.

They did. The French started to find their touch on the break as the match went on, and Olivier Giroud had a series of particularly dangerous chances. Giroud’s frustration, borne from not scoring in the tournament despite his key role as France’s central striker, only increased as chances were missed and the scores stayed level. As the half drew to a close, French right-back Benjamin Pavard combined with Mbappé and forced Thibaut Courtois into a tough save, but it was France’s hulking frontman who had the lion’s share of the chances. It was still scoreless at half-time, but it seemed inevitable that someone would find the back of the net in the second half. It was the French who broke through.

A few minutes after half time, France won a corner, which allowed Antoine Griezmann to whip the ball into the box. He drove his corner close to goal, where two teammates were waiting. Pogba didn’t get a touch on it. Samuel Umtiti did. The French centre-back managed to beat Marouane Fellaini in the air, and his glancing, close-range header was impossible for Courtois to stop. Shortly after Umtiti’s header, the French threatened again, finding space thanks to Mbappé and manufacturing a series of opportunities. Mbappé’s ball for Blaise Matuidi allowed Matuidi to shoot from the edge of the box, and when Belgium failed to adequately clear the blocked shot France threatened again. Mbappé’s backheel for Giroud gave the big striker some space, but his luck was out and his shot was desperately blocked.

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Hugo Lloris (left) flies to punch the ball away from Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini was Belgium’s main target for their crosses, but France did well to ensure that he, and striker Romelu Lukaku, weren’t able to impact the match.

A couple of crosses into the box provided Belgium’s best chances for redemption. Kevin de Bruyne managed to hit his volley goalward from just inside the box, but his side-footed shot was poorly hit and Lloris gathered it comfortably. Lloris wasn’t quite so comfortable a few minutes later as he dived in an attempt to stop Fellaini’s header, but the header missed and the deficit remained. Crosses had soon become Belgium’s primary mode of attack, with Dries Mertens, de Bruyne, Jan Vertonghen and Alderweireld all whipping the ball into the box but not finding enough targets in the middle to really trouble the French defence. Most of the time, Paul Pogba, Umtiti or Varane managed to head them away.

When a couple of de Bruyne’s crosses caused a bit of chaos in the French box, it looked like the game was building to an exciting climax. It wasn’t. Belgium’s chances began to dry up, their frustrations mounted and France killed the game easily despite six minutes of additional time being allocated. They barely even had to defend, as space began to open up for them on the break and they began to target the Belgian defence with their dangerous counter-attacks. In the last few minutes, Courtois was forced into a couple of diving saves to keep France from doubling their lead. At the other end of the pitch, Lloris was a virtual spectator as Belgium’s golden generation couldn’t put it together. They came from 2-0 down against Japan, and they upset Brazil, but they couldn’t get past the final hurdle as France battle on. They weren’t spectacular, but 1-0 was enough. Didier Deschamps’ men know how to win, and now they’re in the final.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
France 1 (Umtiti 51)
Belgium 0
Referee: Andrés Cunha (Uru)
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté; Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi (Tolisso 86); Giroud (N’Zonzi 85).
Belgium (3-5-2): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Chadli (Batshuayi 90+1), Dembélé (Mertens 60), Witsel, Fellaini (Carrasco 80), de Bruyne; Lukaku, E Hazard.

Top 5
1. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba played a big role in the latter stages, when Belgium were attempting their aerial bombardment of the French goal. He made sure he was in the box for every cross, and he was always able to head the ball clear and keep his side’s lead safe. Combined with his usual brilliance in midfield, it made for a good performance.
2. Raphaël Varane (France)
His defensive partner may have scored the goal, but Varane was the man underpinning France’s solidity. He and Umtiti complemented each other well, and Varane did some good defensive work at key moments in the game to keep Belgium at bay. He defended Romelu Lukaku brilliantly, and made it look easy at the same time.
3. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Umtiti seemed to find one of the few sure-fire ways of beating Courtois: slam it in from close range. Short of that, beating the Belgian keeper seems nearly impossible. France didn’t test him too much, but he was always in position to make the saves he needed to and he threw in some very high-quality stops to keep the deficit at one goal.
4. Hugo Lloris (France)
Like Courtois, Lloris didn’t have too much work to do despite Belgium’s control of the ball, but the French captain did it well and made sure that, on the rare occasion his defence was breached, he was around to make the save. His form, like that of his side, has been steadily improving and his strong performance will give him confidence for the final.
5. Toby Alderweireld (Belgium)
Alderweireld was one of Belgium’s main ball carriers thanks to France’s solid defensive structure, and the centre-back managed to do more than most of his teammates. He provided their best chance of the game with a very tough but well-hit first-time shot and he was reliable when called upon to defend.

2018 FIFA World Cup Semi-Final Preview – France vs Belgium

After 60 matches, 157 goals and plenty of excitement, only four teams remain in the battle for global football’s most coveted trophy. Many of the World Cup’s pre-tournament favourites have bowed out, and the final four consists of Belgium and Croatia (both of whom have never won the trophy) and England, who won in 1966 but haven’t looked like doing so again in the intervening years. Rounding out the quartet are the French, who are the only main pre-tournament favourite to make it this far but are no certainty to lift the trophy against some very dangerous opposition. The two semi-finals are very open, and there are certainly no guarantees as to who will be victorious when all is said and done. With two thrilling semi-finals contests to look forward to, and some brilliant players on display, the rest of this tournament won’t be short on excitement. It will be fascinating to see how it pans out, starting with the high-stakes clash between France and Belgium.

France vs Belgium

Form Guide

France
Group Stage
France 2 (Griezmann 58 pen, Behich 81 og), Australia 1 (Jedinak 62 pen)
France 1 (Mbappé 34), Peru 0
Denmark 0, France 0
Round of 16
France 4 (Griezmann 13 pen, Pavard 57, Mbappé 64, 68), Argentina 3 (Di María 41, Mercado 48, Agüero 90+3)
Quarter-Finals
Uruguay 0, France 2 (Varane 40, Griezmann 61)

Belgium
Group Stage
Belgium 3 (Mertens 47, Lukaku 69, 75), Panama 0
Belgium 5 (E Hazard 6 pen, 51, Lukaku 16, 45+3, Batshuayi 90), Tunisia 2 (Bronn 18, Khazri 90+3)
England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51)
Round of 16
Belgium 3 (Vertonghen 69, Fellaini 74, Chadli 90+4), Japan 2 (Haraguchi 48, Inui 52)
Quarter-Finals
Brazil 1 (Renato Augusto 76), Belgium 2 (Fernandinho 13 og, de Bruyne 31)

Game Plan

France have built into the tournament well, improving with every game and looking very well-drilled in a comfortable 2-0 win over Uruguay. Belgium are sure to present a sterner test, and it will be interesting to see how Didier Deschamps approaches the game. Under their former captain, France have displayed a tendency to sit back and hit their opposition on the break, a strategy which gives Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé the space to catch defenders out with their speed, smarts and skill. Holding it all together is main striker Olivier Giroud, who is yet to score a goal at this tournament but allows others to thrive by holding the ball up in attack and allowing his teammates to drift into dangerous positions. France’s key strength lies in midfield, where N’Golo Kanté provides a tireless screen for the defence and Paul Pogba combines an imposing physique with incredible skills. They are starting to work together well, and they will be hard to beat.

With Romelu Lukaku leading the line, and receiving brilliant service from Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, it’s not surprising that Belgium like to attack. In their first few matches they played a three-man defence and largely controlled the game, relying on their talent to break their opponents down. Then they came up against Brazil, after an unconvincing come-from-behind win over Japan. They weren’t expected to go through, but a switch to a more conventional four man defence paid dividends and the impact of de Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku on the break was enough to put two goals past Brazil. A suspension to Thomas Meunier, the only genuine right-back in the squad, means that changes will have to be made, and it will be interesting to see if Roberto Martínez reverts to his earlier approach against a French team that could be more potent than the Brazilians. The bare bones of the side are likely to remain the same, but the identity of Meunier’s replacement will dictate Martínez’s approach to the match.

Key Questions

1. Who will replace Thomas Meunier?
Belgium don’t have another proper right-back in their squad, so whoever comes in for the in-form Meunier will be a makeshift solution. Nacer Chadli’s versatility means he can deputise, but that will create a hole in the midfield trio (which Chadli was a part of). Either way, Chadli is not a natural right-back, and playing him in an unfamiliar position could cause big problems. Thomas Vermaelen could come into the side, and his selection would likely mean a reversion to a back three (this time with centre-back Jan Vertonghen in a more attacking and not necessarily natural role). The suspension of the only player in Belgium’s side without a natural replacement is sure to cause plenty of headaches for Martínez, and Meunier’s form means his absence will have ramifications.
2. Will either side take the game on?
Pre-tournament, the answer to this question would be a definite yes. France tend to invite their opponents to come at them, and Belgium’s strategy was defined by their attacking prowess and ability to exert pressure on their opponents. Then Belgium completely flipped their strategy to beat the Brazilians, and it worked wonders. As a result, Martínez will be very tempted to take a similar approach against France, based on a solid defence, a more powerful midfield (de Bruyne was moved forward against Brazil, allowing the more defensive-minded Marouane Fellaini to take his place) and a potent counter-attacking threat. If France decide to sit back as well, this game could become a defensive battle despite the attacking talent on display. It will be interesting to see which team looks to take control of possession and territory, or if neither is prepared to open themselves up to the other’s counter-attack.
3. Can France keep the Belgians out?
They may have beaten South American powerhouses Argentina and Uruguay on the way here, but France’s defence hasn’t yet come up against a top-quality attack. Argentina were off colour all tournament, and their three goals against the French belied their inability to really trouble Hugo Lloris’ goalHiHu, with said goals coming from a brilliant strike, a fortuitous deflection and an injury time header. Uruguay were missing Edinson Cavani, and without their star striker their attacking play fell apart. In Belgium, France will face an in-form attack with plenty of goals in them, and their largely untroubled defence will be in for a tough examination. If they can’t hold up, their hopes of lifting the World Cup will almost certainly fall by the wayside.

Key Players

N’Golo Kanté’s job description isn’t particularly spectacular: he runs around in midfield, attempts to win the ball, and passes it to an open player, then repeats the cycle for 90 minutes. It may sound simple, but it’s this hard work in midfield that holds the French together. Kanté can run all day while performing his key role, and his anticipation means that he keeps appearing wherever the ball is. His ability to continually pick off passes means that most of France’s opponents struggle to get past him, with their most dangerous attacks cut off before they can even reach the final third, and he also allows Pogba to thrive. France will be relying on him to perform at his best against Belgium, and such is his consistency that he probably will.

Kevin de Bruyne’s start to the tournament was underwhelming. Placed in the centre of midfield to accommodate the undeniable quality of Hazard, Lukaku and Dries Mertens, he was unable to have his usual impact on games and he struggled to show his unique attacking gifts. Then he got a chance in a more advanced role against Brazil, and he was brilliant. He brings other players into the action, and he caused massive issues for Brazil’s previously solid defence when he found space. He can play incredible passes, and his combination with Hazard will be a major concern for Deschamps.

Teams

Blaise Matuidi has returned from suspension, and he is likely to come back into the side with Corentin Tolisso making way. Otherwise, the French aren’t likely to make any changes to the team that beat Uruguay, sticking with the line-up that has served them so well throughout the tournament.
Possible Team (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté; Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi; Giroud.

Meunier won’t play, and his enforced absence is likely to be Belgium’s only change. The main options to replace him are Youri Tielemans, who can play in the middle, or Vermaelen, whose inclusion may herald a return to a back three. Centre-back Toby Alderweireld could also move to right-back, but such a move would leave Belgium’s two defensive mainstays, Alderweireld and Vertonghen, playing out of position. The 4-3-3 was so effective against Brazil that Martínez may keep it going despite Meunier’s absence.
Possible Team (4-3-3): Courtois – Chadli, Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Witsel, Fellaini, Tielemans; Lukaku, de Bruyne, E Hazard.

Prediction

This game is very hard to call, but the pace and dynamism of both attacks means that the team who scores first is likely to come away with the win, and could easily win by a big margin. Both teams have plenty of goals in them, and a free-flowing classic is a definite possibility. The French look like the favourites thanks to slightly more consistent performances and the massive loss of Meunier, but Belgium’s quality should not be underestimated and they will come ready to fight. This one could be a classic. France 3-1.

Belgium’s golden generation come through to knock Brazil out

This was Belgium’s last chance. With their golden generation hitting their peak, a World Cup quarter-finals appearance wasn’t going to be good enough for a talented group of stars. To fulfil their immense potential as a team, they simply needed to win. Unfortunately, they were up against Brazil. A draw in their last group stage game would have taken them on a softer path, one which didn’t include the Brazilians (or the French, the team that would play the winner of the highly-anticipated clash). Instead, they won the last group stage match, and here they were. It’s hard to know how many people gave them a chance against Brazil. Belgium were good, but Brazil…were Brazil. They win things, and this team looked capable of winning things. Then Belgium delivered an inspired 90 minute performance which ended Brazil’s tournament and, once again, threw the race for the 2018 World Cup wide open.

The game started very openly. There was chaos in the Belgian penalty area when Neymar’s corner was flicked on by Miranda for Thiago Silva, who hit the post from very close range. Belgium survived and counter-attacked, with Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard combining dangerously against the stretched Brazilian defence. Paulinho had a pair of chances minutes later, firstly running onto the ball as it bounced around in Belgium’s box and then miscuing another flicked on Brazilian corner. Less than 10 minutes had been played, and every single second had been played at breakneck pace. Someone was going to score. It was inevitable.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was Belgium who took the lead. De Bruyne was in sparkling touch, and his incisive ball found Marouane Fellaini on the edge of the box. His shot was deflected out for a corner, which was swung in to the near post. Brazil didn’t defend Hazard’s corner particularly well, and Vincent Kompany was able to get his head on the ball to flick it on for a teammate. It never reached one of his teammates. Instead, it bounced off Fernandinho’s arm as the Brazilian midfielder attempted to block it, and it rebounded into the back of the net. Brazil were behind.

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Kevin de Bruyne scores Belgium’s second goal from just outside the box. De Bruyne was back to his best, and his first half performance gave Belgium an ultimately unassailable lead.

Now in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position, Brazil kept pushing. They drove the Belgian defence back, but Gabriel Jesus couldn’t quite force the ball in from inside the six-yard box. Belgium’s desperate defence cleared – just. Philippe Coutinho had a chance to unleash his lethal right foot when he found space outside the box, but he drilled his shot straight at Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. Meanwhile, Belgium continued to pose an attacking threat of their own. Hazard somehow worked his way out of a congested area to burst into space, and Thomas Meunier’s subsequent cross nearly connected with Lukaku in the centre. De Bruyne did connect with Lukaku in the box when he found space on the break, but the big striker wasn’t quite able to get his shot off. Brazil kept pushing, and Marcelo forced Courtois into a save. Then Belgium went forward, Hazard and de Bruyne combined, and Brazil once again scrambled to clear. It was fast, end-to-end action, and both sides looked capable of breaking each other down at any given moment.

One team looked certain to score before the half was up. It was Belgium, not Brazil. Ever since they took the lead, they had threatened to turn one of their counter-attacks into a potent opportunity. When a cleared Brazilian corner found Lukaku, their break delivered. Lukaku simultaneously held off those behind him and took on those in front as he made a barnstorming run to the middle of the field, and he managed to squirt out a pass to the influential de Bruyne just before his momentum finally dissipated. The unmanned de Bruyne took a shot and didn’t miss, leaving Alisson with no chance as he drilled his unstoppable strike into the bottom corner. It was bad enough being behind. Now it was panic stations.

Naturally, Brazil kept pushing harder. Courtois was forced into a pair of tough saves in a matter of seconds, first keeping Marcelo’s deflected cross out with his outstretched hand and then flinging himself to his left to punch Coutinho’s well-placed shot away. Then, in keeping with the rhythm of the game, Belgium countered, and Hazard, Lukaku and de Bruyne threatened again. Shortly afterwards, Alisson tipped de Bruyne’s free-kick over the bar, and was tested again from the resultant corner when Kompany’s back-heeled flick was on target. Neymar hadn’t been too much of a factor, and the Brazilian star was thwarted thrice as the half came to a close. Firstly, he was set upon by Belgium’s afroed central midfield duo of Fellaini and Axel Witsel, and then he was stopped by club teammate Meunier. At the end of the half, he slipped in behind – and he was stopped by the offside flag.

The second half picked up where the first had left off. Kompany dispossessed Neymar and kick-started a counter-attack which saw de Bruyne play Lukaku through. Miranda, Brazil’s captain of the week, managed to stop him. Marcelo played in a few dangerous crosses, but they couldn’t find a target in the middle. Neymar went down in the box and appealed for a penalty, which wasn’t awarded. Paulinho nearly broke through minutes later, but Courtois saved his shot and Brazil couldn’t get onto his follow-up ball across goal. Another penalty appeal came when Kompany brought Gabriel Jesus down. The video assistant referee deliberated for what seemed like an age before deciding no error had been made. Play on. Then, after a protracted period of desperate defending, Belgium broke, and very nearly scored. De Bruyne (again) teed up Hazard (again), and the Belgian captain’s shot fizzed across the face of goal.

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Belgium’s players celebrate after the historic victory. They were pushed right to the end, but they held on well to progress to the semi-finals.

It soon seemed like Brazil’s attacks were beginning to falter. They still had chances, like when Courtois turned a cross into Paulinho’s leg, but Brazil weren’t coming quite as hard or as dangerously. Then Renato Augusto scored. He hadn’t been on the pitch for a long time, coming on as Tite’s last throw of the dice. Then things opened up for him with Coutinho’s perfect chip into the box, and he headed it into the bottom corner where Courtois couldn’t reach it. Brazil had hope, and they had Belgium on the back foot.

For the last 15 minutes, Brazil were a reinvigorated team. Neymar teed up Roberto Firmino in the centre, but the ball was blasted over the bar. Coutinho found Augusto on the edge of the box, and Augusto’s shot just missed. Neymar found Coutinho, for what should have been a simple chance for the star midfielder. He couldn’t have hit a worse shot if he tried, with the ball flying sideways instead of at the target. In the dying moments, Neymar had a shot after combining well with Douglas Costa. It looked perfect. It was dipping, bending and arcing dangerously towards the top corner. It was set to loop perfectly under the bar. It was set to become Neymar’s heroic moment. Then a black glove appeared and tapped the ball out for a corner. Courtois was too good for it.

As the final whistle sounded, it confirmed a win that had looked likely for some time. That didn’t mute the Belgian celebrations, however. De Bruyne was masterful, Hazard was dangerous, Courtois nearly unbeatable and the defence rock-solid. The contrast with Brazil was striking. Neymar occasionally threatened, but was nowhere near his best. Philippe Coutinho was similarly off his game. Fernandinho, in the side for regular defensive midfielder Casemiro, had a catastrophic 90 minutes, and right-back Fagner was tormented by Hazard. Brazil weren’t good enough, and Belgium most certainly were. In the end, the golden generation took their last chance. After the biggest win in their footballing history, they are a huge chance of lifting the World Cup.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
Brazil 1 (Renato Augusto 76)
Belgium 2 (Fernandinho 13 og, de Bruyne 31)
Referee: Milorad Mažić
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Paulinho (Renato Augusto 73), Fernandinho; Willian (Roberto Firmino 46), Philippe Coutinho, Neymar; Gabriel Jesus (Douglas Costa 58).
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, Fellaini, Witsel, Chadli (Vermaelen 83); de Bruyne, Lukaku (Tielemans 87), E Hazard.

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Thibaut Courtois dives full length to stop Philippe Coutinho’s long range effort. The save was one of many remarkable stops made by Courtois in his brilliant performance.

Top 5
1. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
It took an immense effort, a perfect cross and an even more perfect header to eventually beat Courtois, and even Renato Augusto’s perfectly-placed effort wasn’t too far away from the Belgian goalkeeper’s desperate clutches. When Belgium needed him to stand up, he delivered, and he was the match-winner with his heroic goalkeeping.
2. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
Before this game, de Bruyne hadn’t been at his best. He was playing in a deeper midfield role, and he wasn’t getting on the ball in dangerous areas. Then he was moved into a more advanced position. From the start, de Bruyne was pulling the strings, floating into space and seemingly making something happen with every touch. His impact waned after half time, but his first half was enough.
3. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
When Hazard and de Bruyne combined, Brazil were put under immense pressure. Hazard was free to roam, and he made Fagner look completely out of his depth with some exceptional displays of skill. His balance, poise and ability caught the Brazilians out, and his counter-attacking runs were invaluable in the dying minutes for the time they chewed up.
4. Douglas Costa (Brazil)
Costa came off the bench, and he looked more likely to have an impact than many of his teammates. He made incisive runs cutting in from the right wing, he played some dangerous crosses and he connected well with the rest of the Brazilian attack. It wasn’t his best tournament, but a lively performance was a good way to finish it.
5. Vincent Kompany (Belgium)
Kompany wasn’t able to start in the group stage due to injury, but Belgium took the risk of picking their former captain despite his troubles. In their biggest ever win, he justified that selection. His defensive work was outstanding, and he was a huge factor in Belgium’s ability to keep the Brazilians out. To cap it off, it was his header that was deflected in for the crucial opening goal.

Belgium come back from the dead to leave Japan heartbroken

Keisuke Honda prepared to take the corner kick. With around 30 seconds remaining in Japan’s round of 16 clash with Belgium, the match was finely poised. One goal either way was sure to win it, with the scores level at 2-2 in the 94th minute. Honda, brought on to provide an impact from the bench, had won the corner, forcing Thibaut Courtois to dive full length to bat away his very long-range free-kick. Now, he put the ball into the centre, knowing that a goal would seal a famous Japanese victory.

Such a victory had seemed impossible when the sides began the match and inevitable shortly after half-time, when the Japanese went 2-0 up. Japan had only reached this stage on fair play points, while Belgium had looked like the real deal as their dynamic attack blew sides away in the group stage. Belgium were expected to cruise through, and their first half did little to suggest that Japan would give them any trouble. They exerted an almost effortless dominance over the Japanese, continuing to batter them until they seemed sure to crack.

Honda’s cross was too close to Courtois to give Japan a realistic chance of scoring. With his usual ease, Courtois seemed to glide off his line to take the ball, and he seemed to navigate the traffic of the penalty area with minimal fuss as he looked to offload possession to a teammate. Knowing the urgency of the situation, and the potential for a swift counter-attack, Courtois was moving quite quickly. From the expression on his face, you’d think he was going through a training drill.

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Takashi Inui celebrates after putting Japan 2-0 up early in the second half. Inui’s goal, a brilliantly taken shot from distance, seemed to give Japan the head-start they needed to claim a famous victory.

Courtois’ demeanour wasn’t quite so serene when Takashi Inui beat him just after half time. Belgium had already gone behind a few minutes earlier thanks to a counter-attacking goal from Genki Haraguchi, and they were determinedly trying to erase the deficit. In this climate, Japan found themselves going forward once more, only to have their attack rebuffed by Vincent Kompany’s solid defensive header. And then rebooted again, as Shinji Kagawa picked up the ball on the edge of the box. He controlled it and passed it to Inui, who lashed it into the back of the net from range. Earlier in the tournament, Inui had scored an excellent goal against Senegal. It was neither as good nor as important as this one. Belgium were behind, and Courtois’ stunned expression was a perfect representation of how Belgium were feeling. It wasn’t meant to be this way.

Courtois rolled the ball out from the edge of the area, spotting a running Kevin de Bruyne in the middle of Belgium’s half. There were no Japanese players in sight as Belgium’s star playmaker ran through the middle of the field, approaching the halfway line with the same calm urgency that Courtois had shown seconds earlier. He passed halfway unchallenged, and continued to stroll unchallenged until he reached the edge of the centre circle.

De Bruyne’s fortunes had loosely mirrored those of his side. Early on in the piece, he had been decent but not quite at his best, making a few nice passes but never coming up with the impromptu moments of brilliance which so often define his play. Then, after the second goal, he fell apart with the rest of his team. Belgium’s star-studded attack seemed shell-shocked, and de Bruyne wasn’t quite working at his best alongside Belgian captain Eden Hazard. Belgium’s problems were not just isolated to two misfiring stars. Romelu Lukaku, who had looked so dynamic earlier in the match, was somehow missing chances he would normally convert in his sleep. They were making mistakes in possession, and attacks were breaking down without any need for Japanese intervention. Left wing-back Yannick Carrasco was woeful, seemingly turning the ball over every time he got it. Belgium’s so-called golden generation was unravelling against the disciplined Japanese, and there seemed to be nothing anyone could do about it.

De Bruyne had plenty of options as he entered Belgium’s attacking half. He chose Thomas Meunier, streaming down the right wing. Meunier received the ball in the final third, and things were starting to get a little nervous for the Japanese. Belgium’s counter-attack looked fluent, and Japan’s defence was stretched to dangerous levels as the Belgian wing-back ran onto the ball. Meunier had options inside the box, and he kept running forward with those options at the front of his mind. Japan just didn’t have the numbers to put any pressure on Meunier, and he prepared to cross the ball into the box at his own leisure.

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Genki Haraguchi (front) scores the opening goal of the match past Jan Vertonghen (centre) and Thibaut Courtois. The goal came from a one-man counter-attack, and a poor piece of defending from Vertonghen.

Meunier had been partially responsible for Japan’s first goal, which really set the cat among the pigeons. He attempted to combine with Dries Mertens on the right wing, as he had done to good effect plenty of times in the first half. When Mertens lost the ball attempting to pass it in his direction, it didn’t seem too costly. Japan hadn’t made them pay in the first half. The ball that Gaku Shibasaki played in his attempt to break the defence open didn’t seem likely to make Belgium pay either. Genki Haraguchi was running through, but Jan Vertonghen was in the way. Somehow, he failed to make the challenge required to nip the slightly concerning but flawed counter-attack in the bud. His touch wasn’t enough to prevent the ball getting through, and Haraguchi managed to slip his shot past Courtois, with Vertonghen desperately chasing him to atone for his error.

Vertonghen got that chance with about 20 minutes of normal time remaining, and he seized the opportunity to reduce the deficit and shake Belgium out of their shock-induced stupor. The opening was a small one, and it came from a poorly defended corner. The ball bounced around in the box, and eventually it was hacked high in the air. It didn’t leave the area, instead landing right on top of Vertonghen in a rather unlikely goal-scoring position. On a tight angle, the centre-back’s best chance seemed to be a header into the middle, where others could attempt to capitalise. Instead, he chanced his arm. The truly remarkable looped into the back of the net from an acute angle, nestling itself into the bottom corner despite Eiji Kawashima’s best efforts and giving Belgium hope of salvaging something from the match.

Meunier played his cross into the centre, looking for Lukaku. The big forward had run into the box as Belgium looked to break, and he found himself face to face with a defender as the ball reached him. He could try to beat the man in front of him and let off a shot, or trap the ball, hold it with his back to goal and feed an onrushing player. Or he could just let it through, where he knew he had a teammate bearing down on goal. Lukaku decided to let it through.

Lukaku had been heavily involved in Belgium’s best chance to go ahead after the equaliser. With normal time winding down, Meunier picked out Nacer Chadli, who forced Kawashima into an acrobatic save and collected the ball as it ricocheted back into play. He lofted another pass into the centre, where Lukaku was waiting. While Belgium were falling apart, Lukaku had been on the end of two such crosses. One ended up wide of the target from point-blank range and the other was well blocked. Now, his header was on target but athletically tipped over the bar by Kawashima. Japan were holding on, and continuing to play out of their skins as they sought to find some kind of result. Akira Nishino’s men weren’t settling for extra time, and they were continuing to throw players forward in an attempt to win the game. In the end, it probably cost them.

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Nacer Chadli (in red) scores the winning goal in the 94th minute. Chadli’s finish sealed Belgium’s remarkable comeback from 2-0 down, the first such comeback in a knockout game since 1970.

Lukaku let the ball pass through his legs, allowing Chadli to run onto it in space. Japan’s defence had been stretched to the point where they offered no resistance as Chadli collected the ball. There was nobody there to stop him. The second half substitute had a golden opportunity, and he slammed it emphatically past Kawashima’s futile attempts to deny him.  A Japanese defender slid in, but he came in too late to make an impact. Miraculously, Belgium had won. Miraculously, Nacer Chadli had come up with the goal to send them to the quarter-finals, with just eight seconds of injury time remaining. Japan had surely lost. Belgium had surely won.

Chadli played a big part in Belgium’s crucial second goal. He had looked good after replacing Carrasco, and when he received the ball from a Japanese corner with space to run into he just took off. Inui attempted to impede him and stop him from breaking through. Chadli shook him off. Eventually, the counter-attack created a corner, as de Bruyne’s shot was blocked over the bar. Hazard was taking it. The corner was cleared away, but de Bruyne still managed to find himself the ball with time and space. He was too far out to score, but he knew exactly where Hazard was and he passed it to his captain in space on the left wing. After a bit of dribbling, Hazard crossed. It was another substitute, Marouane Fellaini, who met the ball with his head and couldn’t miss from close range. The decision to replace Mertens with Fellaini had seemed an intriguing one at the time. The afroed midfielder more than justified his introduction with that one moment.

Chadli’s goal came with basically the last kick of the game, and sealed one of the most remarkable comeback wins in World Cup history. When the final whistle blew, Belgium’s reaction was one of overwhelming relief, while Japan’s was one of complete despair. The Japanese had given their all, and found themselves in a position where they looked almost certain to progress. They had brought one of the competition’s favourites to their knees, yet they still found themselves beaten. As for Belgium, it’s hard to know what to think. There were plenty of good moments, and their stunning comeback shows that they have good spirit and excellent resolve, but they’ll have to ask themselves what went wrong in the first place. In the end, the enthralling, rollicking battle sent Belgium through, and that’s really all they can ask for.

Rostov-on-Don – Rostov Arena
Belgium 3 (Vertonghen 69, Fellaini 74, Chadli 90+4)
Japan 2 (Haraguchi 48, Inui 52)
Referee: Malang Diedhiou (Sen)
Belgium (3-4-2-1): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, de Bruyne, Witsel, Carrasco (Chadli 65); Mertens (Fellaini 65), E Hazard; Lukaku.
Japan (4-2-3-1): Kawashima – H Sakai, Yoshida, Shōji, Nagatomo; Hasebe, Shibasaki (Yamaguchi 81); Haraguchi (Honda 81), Kagawa, Inui; Ōsako.

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Marouane Fellaini celebrates after scoring Belgium’s second goal from the bench. Fellaini’s size had a big impact on the latter part of the game, as he collected a goal and repeatedly threatened the Japanese defence.

Top 5
1. Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
Meunier dropped off slightly during Belgium’s poor period after the second goal, but he was otherwise consistent and very dangerous. His delivery from the right wing was excellent, and he used his size to good effect when tracking back to assist the defence.
2. Nacer Chadli (Belgium)
Chadli came on for Carrasco and immediately reinvigorated the Belgians with his confident ball use and his dynamic run down the left. He contributed to two of Belgium’s three goals, and scored the winner in the dying moments. With Carrasco looking horribly out of form, Chadli is a very good chance to start in the quarter-finals.
3. Takashi Inui (Japan)
Inui scored an excellent goal to give Japan an almost unassailable lead, and his work slipping behind the Belgian defence on the break caused plenty of problems. He put in some dangerous crosses and made some very clever runs, and he was involved in basically all of Japan’s best attacks.
4. Yūto Nagatomo (Japan)
Nagatomo was excellent, doing his defensive duties as the left-back and pushing forward into dangerous positions. He put in some very dangerous crosses, and his combination with Inui was as sharp as ever. He showed his experience with an excellent individual performance.
5. Marouane Fellaini (Belgium)
The decision to bring Fellaini, a central midfielder, on for Mertens, a right winger, seemed an odd one. Mertens had been dangerous on occasions, and Fellaini has never quite been the finished product. Then, slotting in on the right wing, Fellaini delivered a brilliant performance on the right. He managed to score the equaliser with an excellent header, and showed he can be a handy impact player.

Januzaj’s stunning strike stands out as Belgium beat England

Adnan Januzaj received the ball on the edge of the penalty area. The talented Belgian winger was receiving his first start of the World Cup, and, presumably looking to impress, he skipped into the box, leaving Danny Rose scrambling to keep up as he moved from side to side. Januzaj rolled the ball to the left and right with excellent touch, before eventually deciding it was time to take a shot. He did, nonchalantly stroking the ball past Jordan Pickford’s desperate dive and into the top corner. In any other game, Januzaj’s stunning goal would have been cause for wonderment and rapturous celebration. In this game, it just cued bewilderment.

The match was only a mostly dead rubber, but actual dead rubbers – and indeed friendlies – generally take place with more energy. Both England and Belgium had sealed their place in the knockout stages, but England went into the match on top of the group, ahead of their opponents on fair play points (Belgium had negative three, England negative two). It should have been an enthralling contest, but the only incentive either team could get from topping the group was a place in the harder side of the tournament. As a result, Belgium went into the game having made nine changes, while England had made eight. Neither side had anything to gain from winning, and the result was a spectacle that left much to be desired.

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Gary Cahill (left) makes a key goal line clearance early on. The chance was one of few either side had during the match.

It was clear from the off that both teams knew exactly what the situation was regarding qualification. There were moments where Belgium’s reserves looked like scoring, most notably when Gary Cahill was forced into a goal line clearance, but generally everyone just passed the ball around. Occasionally the passing was punctuated by moments of excitement, like when Trent Alexander-Arnold’s harmless cross was so far wrong that it nearly became a half-decent shot (it still missed the target), but such moments were rare and it didn’t take long for the game to revert back to a funereal pace. Referee Damir Skomina mercifully ended the lacklustre first half without adding any time on, and the image of English wing-back Danny Rose sharing a joke with the Belgian players during the break didn’t suggest that the second half would be any more entertaining. Then, just to add to the weird contest that was unfolding, there was the small issue of the yellow cards.

With neither team really interested in winning, the match seemed destined to end in a draw, bringing fair play points into the equation. With England only leading in the race for the non-coveted top spot in the group by virtue of their superior disciplinary record, there was the possibility that a couple of bad English fouls could push Belgium into first place, something they didn’t seem to want. Obviously, Belgium foresaw this tactic, and saw fit to forestall it by picking up a few bookings of their own. Mousa Dembélé started it, bringing down Tottenham Hotspur teammate Rose a little more vigorously than he needed to. Rose was the victim again shortly after, with Leander Dendoncker brutally hacking him down just outside the box and giving England an unassailable lead in the fair play points stakes. It was complicated, very ridiculous and, above all, just bizarre.

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Adnan Januzaj celebrates after opening the scoring with a brilliant goal. Januzaj’s goal proved the difference between the teams, and it was a very rare moment of class in an otherwise uninteresting game.

Then, just after half time, Januzaj produced his moment of stunning quality. Under the circumstances, the goal felt out of place. How could it tally with a game where neither team was trying, both seemed to be secretly hoping for a defeat, no first-choice players were on the pitch and the most enthralling subplot was based around yellow cards? It almost felt like Januzaj’s goal could have been an accident, as if he unfurled a low-percentage shot and managed to absolutely nail the strike. It was just so out of keeping with everything that had happened throughout the game, and the lifelessness of the affair. After the goal, Michy Batshuayi grabbed the ball and punted it back into the net in celebration. He slammed it into the post, and it rebounded straight back into his head. At least that part was more in keeping with the rest of the game.

England didn’t really seem bothered by their going behind in the match, and they seemed quite content to hold the status quo. They pushed a little harder, but they never took it to the Belgians and didn’t really looked like getting an equaliser. In the final moments, Belgium seemed to adopt the attitude that since England weren’t actually going to beat them, if they were going to hurt their World Cup chances by winning the game then they may as well win it properly. The result was some good chances, with Dries Mertens forcing a save from Pickford and Batshuayi slipping through a couple of defenders and playing a dangerous ball into the middle which formed a dangerous scrum in the six-yard box, but no goals. In the end, with neither team really needing – or even wanting – to win, the result was never likely to be too fascinating. In the end, it was no surprise that it was just a bit dull.

Kaliningrad – Kaliningrad Stadium
England 0
Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51)
Referee: Damir Skomina (Svn)
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Jones, Stones (Maguire 46), Cahill; Alexander-Arnold (Welbeck 79), Loftus-Cheek, Dier, Delph, Rose; Vardy, Rashford.
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Dendoncker, Boyata, Vermaelen (Kompany 74); Chadli, Dembélé, Fellaini, T Hazard; Januzaj (Mertens 86), Batshuayi, Tielemans.

Top 5
1. Adnan Januzaj (Belgium)
Januzaj provided the only real entertainment of the match with his stunning strike into the top corner, and gave Belgium a spark on the right wing which suggests he could be a handful. As Belgium enter the knockouts he could be a very handy player to keep in reserve.
2. Danny Rose (England)
Rose was in pretty solid form, making some good forward runs and causing the occasional problem for the Belgian defence. He showed good pace getting forward, and showed that he has the quality to deputise on the left whenever he’s needed.
3. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Courtois was one of few first-choice players on the field, and his excellent goalkeeping allowed Belgium to come away with the win. He made a few excellent saves, always looked confident coming off his line and provided the security Belgium will rely on later in this tournament.
4. Marcus Rashford (England)
Rashford looked like the only English player who was really capable of breaching the Belgian defence, and he came very close on a few occasions with his pace and skill. He kept his energy up throughout the game, and came closer to scoring than any of his teammates.
5. Trent Alexander-Arnold (England)
Alexander-Arnold looked completely at home in just his second international match (even if it was against a less than full-strength Belgian side), and suggested that he can do a decent job off the bench if required. His set piece delivery was good, and he made some nice runs down the right.

Tunisia blown away by red-hot Belgium

Any team playing Belgium later in this World Cup should be afraid. They have scored eight goals in their first two games, and their dominant 5-2 rout of Tunisia sent a massive warning to their competition. Up front, Romelu Lukaku used his pace, power and extraordinary touch to score his second brace in two games. Next to him, Eden Hazard was at his best, slipping past Tunisian defenders, wreaking havoc with his runs in behind and adding two goals of his own. Michy Batshuayi, coming on as Lukaku’s deputy, could have easily scored a hat-trick with the brilliant chances he had. Tunisia fought hard, and created some nice attacking moves of their own, but they were no match for a Belgian team who could seemingly unlock their opponents’ defence at will. Perhaps the scariest part about Belgium’s performance is the fact that there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

There were warning signs early. A long ball into Belgium’s attacking third was too heavy, and certain to safely travel to Farouk Ben Mustapha. Then Lukaku got involved, easily outrunning centre-back Yassine Meriah and seriously challenging the Tunisian keeper with a blistering turn of speed. It wasn’t really a chance, but it showed exactly what the big striker can do. A few minutes later, Eden Hazard was the victim of a clumsy challenge from Syam Ben Youssef on the edge of the box. Referee Jair Marrufo pointed to the spot, the video assistant referee couldn’t find anything to overturn the decision and Hazard stepped up to calmly convert the penalty. On the sideline, Belgian coach Roberto Martínez didn’t even react.

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Eden Hazard celebrates after scoring the opening goal. There was some doubt as to whether Hazard was fouled inside the area or not, but the referee’s decision was upheld and the penalty stood.

Soon, things got worse for the Eagles of Carthage. Ali Maâloul’s heavy touch was intercepted by Dries Mertens, and his pass to Lukaku sliced through the exposed Tunisian defence. It was still far from an easy finish for the big striker, who received the ball just inside the area, took a touch and hit a shot through Ben Youssef’s legs and past Ben Mustapha’s desperate lunge. It wasn’t a particularly easy finish, but Lukaku made it look like child’s play. More worryingly for the Tunisians, just over 15 minutes had elapsed when Lukaku made it 2-0. It didn’t bode well.

Then, a couple of minutes after the second goal, came the highlight of Tunisia’s match. Wahbi Khazri curled a free-kick into the box, and Belgium’s slightly shaky defence allowed right-back Dylan Bronn the space to get his head to the ball. The header was perfect, unstoppably bouncing past Thibaut Courtois and slipping just inside the post. The goal put Tunisia back in the contest, and there were signs that they were starting to settle into the game. A few incautious errors gave Belgium some opportunities, but Khazri and Ferjani Sassi were also able to present a threat going forward and the Tunisians put some nice moves together. Defenders Bronn and Ben Youssef went down injured, but Tunisia continued to fight and seemed to be hanging in the contest. Then Belgium scored on the stroke of half time.

Seconds before the goal, Lukaku had threatened to score another. Hazard found Kevin de Bruyne in space as Belgium broke quickly, and Tunisia only survived when de Bruyne’s ball for Lukaku was slightly too heavy. The next time a chance came, Tunisia didn’t get off so lightly. Maâloul had been the main culprit for the turnovers which had riddled Tunisia’s play, and when he tried to keep the ball in he offended again. This time Thomas Meunier was the beneficiary, and after playing a one-two with de Bruyne the right wing-back slipped a little pass in behind for Lukaku to run onto. Ben Mustapha was chipped with remarkable ease, and Belgium had their third. It didn’t take much longer to grab the fourth.

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Michy Batshuayi celebrates after scoring a late goal. Batshuayi came on as a second half substitute, and had a number of clear-cut opportunities.

Tunisia started the second half well, producing some good attacking moves. Then their defence was unlocked by one pass. Toby Alderweireld picked the ball up deep in his own half, and with few options available to him he went long. He also hit Hazard behind the defence, onside and straight on the chest. It took the Belgian captain three touches to put it into the back of the net. He controlled the ball with his chest, then flicked it past Ben Mustapha to present himself with a chance in front of an open goal. He couldn’t miss. Belgium began to switch off a little after Hazard’s second, and Tunisia began to put their defence under a bit of pressure. It never quite looked like coming to anything.

Batshuayi came on and proceeded to have a number of brilliant chances to score. He slipped in behind the Tunisian defence and chipped Ben Mustapha, only for Meriah to sweep in and clear it off the line. He had another chance when Ben Mustapha fumbled Yannick Carrasco’s shot, but somehow smashed it into the bar from very close range. When he volleyed de Bruyne’s perfect cross straight at the Tunisian keeper, forcing Ben Mustapha into a reflex save, it looked like the substitute striker would be denied a goal. He wasn’t. In the dying moments, Youri Tielemans put in a beautiful cross, and Batshuayi timed his slide perfectly to send the ball into the bottom corner. It was another difficult opportunity converted with little fuss, and it provided an excellent finishing touch to an excellent win. Tunisia had some late joy when Khazri got on the end of Hamdi Nagguez’s pull-back to the edge of the six-yard box, but it was one of few wins for the day and merely served as a footnote to a one-sided game.

Moscow – Otkritie Arena
Belgium 5 (E Hazard 6 pen, 51, Lukaku 16, 45+3, Batshuayi 90)
Tunisia 2 (Bronn 18, Khazri 90+3)
Referee: Jair Marrufo (USA)
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Boyata, Vertonghen; Meunier, de Bruyne, Witsel, Carrasco; Mertens (Tielemans 86), Lukaku (Fellaini 59), E Hazard (Batshuayi 68).
Tunisia (4-3-3): Ben Mustapha – Bronn (Nagguez 24), S Ben Youssef (Benalouane 41), Meriah, Maâloul; Khaoui, Skhiri, Sassi (Sliti 59); F Ben Youssef, Khazri, Badri.

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Romelu Lukaku (centre) competes for the ball with Syam Ben Youssef (left). Lukaku managed to score two goals, making him the equal top scorer for the tournament with four from two games.

Top 5
1. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
Lukaku was substituted reasonably early in the second half, but by then the match was all but over thanks to his influence. He showed incredible pace and found dangerous pockets of space, and his finishing was exceptional. He scored goals with both feet, and made difficult finishes look extraordinarily straightforward.
2. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Hazard kicked off the scoring by winning a penalty and coolly converting it, and he continued to pose a threat until his substitution in the second half. He added another goal, benefitting from an incredible ball but also completing the chance with remarkably good touch, and created plenty of chances with his brilliant skills.
3. Wahbi Khazri (Tunisia)
Khazri’s goal was a deserved reward for his performance, even if it came when his team were four goals behind in second half stoppage time. He created plenty of opportunities for the Eagles of Carthage, and his perfectly delivered free-kick allowed them to score their first goal. He can hold his head high.
4. Michy Batshuayi (Belgium)
A combination of bad luck and poor finishing denied Batshuayi a number of goals, but he kept putting himself in dangerous positions and eventually bagged a late goal. He was able to exploit the space in behind Tunisia’s defence after coming off the bench, and if Martínez wants to rest Lukaku then Batshuayi would be a dangerous replacement.
5. Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
Meunier performed his wing-back role to perfection, making several key contributions at both ends of the pitch. He was dangerous cutting in from the sideline, and he provided the assist for Lukaku’s second goal with a very neat pass. His defensive work was excellent, and he looks like a solid addition to Belgium’s side.