2018 FIFA World Cup Review

It’s all over. A brilliant World Cup filled with excitement has ended with France taking their second World Cup title as many of football’s traditional giants crashed out earlier than expected. A semi-final line-up without Germany, Brazil, Spain and Argentina was certainly unexpected, but the teams that came through in their place delivered plenty of excitement and some quality performances. England looked a rejuvenated side under Gareth Southgate, and Belgium’s best ever side looked very dangerous on their way to the final four. Croatia had a dream run through to the final, showing resolve, skill and plenty of verve as they slugged it out with the consistent French in the tournament’s decider. It was a tournament full of excitement, and plenty of good memories will come from it. This review will take a look at the tournament, with the players and teams that impressed and the teams whose campaigns fell flat.

Best Team: France

It’s not often that a team wins the trophy as comfortably as the French did. They only trailed their opponents at one point during the tournament, with Argentina leading them 2-1 for less than 10 minutes. France then scored three goals in about 10 minutes, and that finished the Argentinians off. Everyone played well, with scarily young players standing tall (19-year-old winger Kylian Mbappé was particularly impressive) and all of France’s proven performers delivering when they needed to. They scored first in every game they played, and they breezed past some very dangerous opponents on their way to the title.

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France celebrate after their World Cup final win over Croatia. The French were comfortably the best side at the tournament, and their march to the trophy was as comfortable as it gets.

Best Fairytale: Croatia

There wasn’t a clear cut fairytale side at this tournament, but there was no shortage of contenders. England, with their young talents and newfound enthusiasm, made it further than any English side in 28 years and captivated a nation in the process. Russia, with the public just hoping the hosts didn’t embarrass themselves, made it all the way to the quarter-finals and knocked out Spain along the way. Sweden made a quarter-final despite having little more than a good system and exemplary team spirit, and Japan defied expectations to nearly make the last eight in spite of a managerial change just two months out from the tournament. In the end, though, Croatia’s journey was more impressive. They had skill, but they needed all of their resilience to go the distance against Denmark, Russia and England, and the 4-2 scoreline of the final didn’t really do them justice. They fought right to the end, and they put in some remarkable efforts along the way.

Biggest Disappointment: Germany

There were plenty of sides who disappointed at this tournament. Portugal and Argentina, despite being powered by two of the world’s biggest stars in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, just scraped through to the round of 16 and found themselves exiting early. Spain were thrust into turmoil days out from the tournament when they sacked Julen Lopetegui, and they failed to fire amidst reports of division in the squad. Brazil were ominously solid in their first four games, but it all fell apart against the determined Belgians in the quarter-finals. In the end, however, all of these teams at least made the knockout stage. Germany didn’t. They looked uninterested and a shadow of the team which won the World Cup four years before, and they never really recovered from a shock opening defeat to Mexico. Their limp exit will have huge ramifications, as the Germans search for the reasons behind their dismal showing.

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South Korea’s players celebrate after upsetting Germany and eliminating them from the World Cup. Germany’s poor performance was unexpected, and it will have ramifications for the future.

Unluckiest Team: Morocco

There were plenty of teams who could be considered unlucky not to go further in this World Cup. Peru looked brilliant against Denmark, held their own against eventual champions France and beat Australia comfortably, and yet they couldn’t pass the group stage. In Group H, Senegal fell foul of the new fair play tiebreaker, thus squandering their chance to become the only African team to make it through. It was another African team, however, who were completely luckless. Morocco were the better team in all of their three games, but the Atlas Lions finished with just one point to show for it. They never took a backwards step, but a 95th minute own goal against Iran (who were also hard-done-by in the end) and a 1-0 loss to Portugal sealed their fate before the final game had been played. They were one of a few unlucky African sides, as none of the five CAF nations made it past the group stage.

Team of the Tournament

Picking the best combined team of the tournament was a difficult task. There were plenty of players who put in strong performances throughout the tournament, with plenty of attackers proving very difficult to separate. The team is picked in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and France’s dominance is reflected in the selection of six of their players in the side.

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Thibaut Courtois makes a diving save during Belgium’s quarter-final win over Brazil. Courtois won the golden glove for his performances as Belgium progressed to the semi-finals.

Goalkeeper: Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Courtois is a classy player. It’s not often a goalkeeper can be described in such terms, but Courtois is no regular goalkeeper. His unflustered air allows him to move with incredible grace, and his extraordinary reach allows him to make difficult saves look incredibly easy. In the end, he was the best of the goalkeepers who featured in the tournament’s final stages, and although Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa and Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel had brilliant tournaments neither of their sides made it far enough to warrant their selection.
Honourable mentions: Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico) and Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)

Right-back: Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
There were two standout right-backs at this tournament, with Meunier playing some brilliant football on Belgium’s right-flank and Kieran Trippier performing a similar role for England with plenty of skill. The two shone at all stages of the tournament, with Trippier’s set piece delivery becoming an integral part of England’s game plan and Meunier’s crosses from the right causing plenty of issues for opposing defences, but in the end the third-place play-off between the teams decided the selection issue in Meunier’s favour. Fresh after missing the semi-final against France (his loss was a massive one) Meunier scored a goal against the English and showcased his attacking and defensive qualities in a brilliant performance.
Honourable mention: Kieran Trippier (England)

Centre-backs: Raphaël Varane (France) and Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Much like the French, Varane got better as the tournament progressed, and he had a big hand in their success with his aerial strength and his ability to match the world’s top strikers. He even provided a threat at the other end, scoring a couple of very nice goals. Granqvist was even more important for Sweden. He picked up a couple of goals from the penalty spot, and he used his imposing physique to good effect in some dominant defensive performances, and he thoroughly deserves his spot in this side. Others could have easily won a spot, with Diego Godín holding Uruguay’s defence together and Swiss young gun Manuel Akanji playing with a composure that belied his lack of international experience, but neither were quite able to get a spot.
Honourable mentions: Diego Godín (Uruguay) and Manuel Akanji (Switzerland)

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Andreas Granqvist celebrates after scoring Sweden’s first goal against South Korea. Granqvist was the main man in Sweden’s defence, and he was the key reason for their success.

Left-back: Lucas Hernández (France)
Of all the positions, left-back was one of the hardest to pick due to a lack of strongly performing players in the position. Hernández, however, was consistent throughout and gave France plenty with his excellent all-round performances. He was able to push forward when required and he swung in some dangerous crosses, but his defensive work stood out. He was composed under pressure, displaying an ability to cleverly draw fouls when France were in need of a breather. He had no real competition, and deserves a spot in this team.
Honourable mention: Yūto Nagatomo (Japan)

Central midfielders: Paul Pogba (France) and N’Golo Kanté (France)
Pogba and Kanté’s brilliant midfield performances ensured both men basically picked themselves, and there wasn’t anyone who really came close to dislodging either. Kanté was brilliant despite an underwhelming effort in the final, and no other holding midfielder was able to exact his level of influence on matches. Alongside Pogba, who pushed forward well and managed to score a key goal in the final, Kanté led the best midfield duo in the tournament – by some distance. Paulinho was good for Brazil, and some, like Ivan Rakitić and Aleksandr Golovin, showed some skills, but Pogba and Kanté’s consistency was unmatched.
Honourable mentions: Paulinho (Brazil), Aleksandr Golovin (Russia) and Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)

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N’Golo Kanté (left) and Paul Pogba (centre) chase Belgian captain Eden Hazard during France’s semi-final win. Kanté and Pogba complemented each other perfectly, and their efforts were a key part of France’s success.

Right-wing: Kylian Mbappé (France)
Mbappé was so good that he was the only possible winner of the award for best young player of the tournament, and he announced himself on the world stage with some breathtaking efforts. In two short bursts he brought Argentina to their knees, and he consistently made opposing defences nervous with his unbelievable pace and well-honed skills. He seemingly has it all, and his brilliant efforts allowed him to win a place in the team over all-action Croatian winger Ante Rebić. He already is a star, and at 19 it’s scary how good a player he could become.
Honourable mention: Ante Rebić (Croatia)

Attacking midfielder: Luka Modrić (Croatia, captain)
Modrić was a deserving winner of the golden ball for the tournament’s best player as he led Croatia to the final with his typically dependable performances. When he is in the zone, he can take a game by the scruff of the neck without anyone realising it, and his exceptional vision allowed Croatia’s talented attackers to thrive. Philippe Coutinho was brilliant in Brazil’s run to the last eight, but he was no match for Croatia’s captain and midfield star.
Honourable mention: Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)

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Luka Modrić (left) battles for the ball with Kylian Mbappé during the World Cup final. Modrić’s efforts in taking Croatia to the final earned him the golden ball, while Mbappé was the tournament’s best young player and burst onto the scene with some dynamic performances.

Left-wing: Antoine Griezmann (France)
There were plenty of dangerous wingers who could accompany Mbappé, with Belgium’s Eden Hazard playing well throughout, Russian winger Denis Cheryshev bursting onto the scene with some great performances and Croatia’s Ivan Perišić delivering massive efforts in the semi-finals and the final. In the end, however, the berth went to Griezmann. Griezmann didn’t actually play on the left-wing, instead starting centrally and drifting wherever he want, but he had a massive impact and he was simply too good to leave out.
Honourable mentions: Eden Hazard (Belgium), Denis Cheryshev (Russia) and Ivan Perišić (Croatia)

Centre-forward: Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani scored three goals in four matches at the tournament, sending Uruguay into the quarter-finals with two sublime goals against Portugal and then missing the match with a calf injury. The impact his loss had on Uruguay’s play showed just how important his hard work in both defence and attack was, and makes him a deserving leader of the line over the more prolific but less influential Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane. His effort was remarkable, and he brought plenty of class to Uruguay’s attack.
Honourable mention: Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Wales come from behind to take out Belgium

This tournament has been one in which underdogs have flourished, and Wales are now one game away from the final of Euro 2016 after a 3-1 victory over Belgium in Lille. Belgium came into the match in great form following a 4-0 thrashing of Hungary, and they asserted themselves in the opening stanza. Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne were both closely checked by the Welsh defence, and Yannick Carrasco was able to flourish on the right wing, finding plenty of space and creating some excellent chances. Belgium should have scored early on after a chaotic piece of play in which three shots were blocked by the Welsh in rapid succession. Carrasco started it when the ball fell to him out the back, but Wayne Hennessey was ready to make the save. Up stepped Thomas Meunier, whose shot passed Hennessey only to be blocked by James Chester, who was sitting in the goalmouth with plenty of support from his teammates. The danger hadn’t passed, and Neil Taylor was forced to deflect Hazard’s attempt over the bar for a corner.

The Welsh were under pressure, and soon they cracked. It was Radja Nainggolan who scored the goal with a thunderous one-time strike from long range, but it was Hazard who was at the centre of the set up play. The midfield maestro drove Joe Allen back towards the box before playing a look away pass to Nainggolan, who had plenty of space available to him. The shot found the top corner, and Hennessey could only manage to get his fingertips on the ball as it found the back of the net. The Welsh regrouped and consolidated, but all they had to show for it was an excellent volley from Taylor which Thibaut Courtois had done very well to save. Gareth Bale had been kept quiet, and the Belgians still looked in control. Then Ashley Williams scored, and the game was turned on its head.

The goal came from a corner, with Aaron Ramsey putting an excellent ball into the centre of the box for Williams, who converted easily. Jordan Lukaku was caught out of position as the ball sailed over his head, and the Welsh captain did not have to do much to drive his header past Courtois into the back of the net. The Welsh were back on level footing, and they looked far more comfortable as the first half drew to a close. Ramsey was everywhere, and his run around the ground was putting Belgium under plenty of pressure. Belgium wrested control back away from the Welsh after the break, and they soon had the defence on the back foot. Meunier looked dangerous when he pushed forward in attack, and Romelu Lukaku was unable to capitalise on a perfectly placed cross from the Belgian right back. Hazard threatened to score when he weaved through the Welsh defence to find space, but his shot was drilled across goal. Then Wales scored again, taking the momentum away from Belgium and putting the underdogs firmly in the driver’s seat.

The goal came out of nowhere, with Ramsey the catalyst. Bale’s long ball from inside his own half found Ramsey on the wing, and the Arsenal star took a brilliant touch to control the ball. He looked inside and crossed for Hal Robson-Kanu, who twisted and turned to put himself one-on-one with Courtois. He worked Meunier out of the contest, and Jason Denayer ran past him in an attempt to win the ball back. Marouane Fellaini was out of position, and Robson-Kanu was able to beat Courtois with ease.

Belgium pushed for the leveller, but the Welsh defence was very effective and the leveller was not going to come. Fellaini had some great chances after some strong set-up play, but he was all bark and no bite, promising much but failing to deliver. The Welsh put the icing on the cake with less than five minutes to go through Sam Vokes, who connected with a brilliant cross from Chris Gunter to guide the ball into the back of the net. It was a brilliant victory, one that was hard-fought but classy at the same time. The Welsh played with determination and had the skill to back it up, and they thoroughly deserve their spot in the last four, underdogs or not.

Lille – Stade Pierre-Mauroy
Wales 3 (A Williams 31, Robson-Kanu 55, Vokes 86)
Belgium 1 (Nainggolan 13)
Referee: Damir Skomina (Svn)

Wales (3-5-2): Hennessey – Chester, A Williams, Davies; Gunter, Allen, Ledley (King 78), Ramsey (Collins 90), Taylor; Robson-Kanu (Vokes 80), Bale.
Belgium (4-2-3-1): Courtois – Meunier, Alderweireld, Denayer, J Lukaku (Mertens 75); Nainggolan, Witsel; Carrasco (Fellaini 46), de Bruyne, Hazard; R Lukaku (Batshuayi 83)

Top 5
1. Aaron Ramsey (Wales)
Ramsey provided two assists and was the life of the Welsh team, buzzing with energy for ninety minutes and causing plenty of problems for the Belgians. He was at the centre of one of the greatest injustices of the night when he was booked for an innocuous handball, and while he will miss the semi-final because of the booking he can take some comfort from his brilliant performance.
2. Ashley Williams (Wales)
Williams was very solid at the heart of the Welsh defence, and he showed great leadership in continually warding off the Belgians. He scored the equaliser for Wales and he proved to be a huge threat for the Belgian defence, getting into dangerous positions and finding space at set pieces. He played well, and will continue to add strength to the Welsh defence in the semi-finals.
3. Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
Meunier played an excellent game from right back, pushing forward well and asking plenty of questions of the Welsh with his probing crosses. He was able to drift between attack and defence effortlessly, and he was Belgium’s best on the night. He was mostly solid from a defensive standpoint, and he didn’t let much through.
4. Hal Robson-Kanu (Wales)
Robson-Kanu was a big threat throughout with his pace and ability to find space in dangerous positions. He outmanoeuvred three Belgian players to score the goal that put the Welsh ahead, and a goal was just reward for a very strong effort throughout the game. He played well, and should keep his place for the semi-finals.
5. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
De Bruyne had a strong game in attacking midfield, and he was at the centre of Belgium’s attack. He created some excellent chances through his set pieces, and he was able to open up plenty of space for both himself and his teammates. He played well, and he can hold his head high despite a disappointing loss.