Agony and revival in a cardiac finish at Rostov Arena, where a little luck, an undeniable Fellaini header, and a lungbusting 100-meter sprint from Chadli reverse a tsunami's course, draining the blue tide back to the Sea of Azov. Belgium, back from the brink, lives another day.
First, an apology: The pace at which this self constructed endeavor (World Cup Blogging about 32 teams, with most players I have never seen) moves from observation to pronouncement at harrowing speed. The gravitational force pulls toward hyperbolic praise and dismissive scoffs with a limited data set, and these will by turns be half-truths, bullseyes and utter gaffes. My experience with Japan represents the latter. I saw them absolutely pulled apart by 10 Colombians for 25 minutes in blazing sun. They looked like an amateur side, and I never got over that impression. The fact that they began to get it together and eventually nicked a winner was easily dismissed, for the man-down Colombians went for the winner while simultaneously running on fumes. This probably colored my view of their Senegal performance, as the men in green seemed obviously better to me and Japan’s keeper looked dodgy, though Japan controlled possession and tied the match. Finally, I didn’t bother watching them against Poland, but they couldn’t win against a team that had no chance of moving on. I simply discounted them...and so did Belgium apparently, off whom they took two terrific goals, and probably without the Vertonghen pass which errantly found the net, we’d probably be looking at one of the biggest upsets in Cup history rather than heartbreak for a stirring Japanese performance.
What was clear in that game was that the center back pair of Yoshida and Shoji were quite capable; that the left back Nagatomo was one of the better in a tournament sorely lacking in them; that Inui (who had earlier taken an excellent goal against Senegal) was a constant buzzing handful to defend, and hit one of the best goals of the tournament by Courtois (and the ball for Haraguchi's goal); and there was a great goal to open the scoring from Haraguchi, who--once slipped by Vertonghen’s casualness and then misreading of the through ball--hit the perfect shot back across the Belgian keeper into the side netting. If only Courtois were taller, English fans have been happy to tweet.
Japan pressed, ran, and then used purposeful possession; with veteran Shinji Kagawa--back at Dortmund after a stint winning the Premiership with Ferguson’s Man United--they had a masterful level-puller in the attack. Kagawa was ardent or calm as the situation required, and really brought a lovely fluidity to their passing.
Finally, they got ridiculous heroics from the keeper Kawashima, whose double-save on Chadli and Lukaku headers will long live in memory. So, mea culpa, Japan: I wrote you off and you were much better than I realized. And maybe than you realized.
Or maybe Belgium’s problems are more profound than many suggest, as I've fretted all along. To wit:
Carrasco’s inclusion in mind-numbing. He cannot or will not defend. He cannot create or shoot. According to Stats Zone, he lost every headball (0/5), despite a size advantage.
He did hit one nice cross, but that’s honestly the only positive contribution I’ve seen him make. Even his completed passes seem to be the wrong one or a pass that ends up completed but completely blows a chance (a ball deep to the left corner that Hazard managed to track down is “complete” but absolutely blows the chance). Chadli was an instant improvement. Anyone would be.
This leads us to the second long-observed problem. A back three relies on a certain amount of speed or at least some help from the flanks. Meunier is killing it on the right side, a major engine going back and forth, but Carrasco is a sieve and leaves Vertonghen on an island, where he was beaten badly for the first goal. The next island he’ll be on: an in-form Willian. After that? Mbappe or Cavani. Belgium just don’t seem to have a real answer on this flank and everyone is going to have a go out them here.
Third, I’ve always had questions about the unity of this team; it’s a cast of the cantankerous (De Bruyne and Vertonghen) and the more reserved (Alderweireld and Hazard), seemingly knit together as well as possible by the well-respected Vincent Kompany and the ego-stroking ministrations of Thierry Henry. I’m the first to admit that I’m hypersensitive to fractures within a team, because unity of purpose and learning how to get-along is central to my coaching philosophy, but this team always makes me twitchy that way. De Bruyne’s body language was quite poor all game, as if he was pissed about style/formation/tactics/personnel. He’s well-known for voicing his discontent, and he looked discontented for much of the game, even before they were behind. Hazard had a buzzing first half and looked like he would break through, but after his rifled first-timer hit the post in the second half, he took on that resigned look of “maybe it’s not our night.” Vertonghen’s of course bitching, but I probably would if I had to Carrasco as the outlet pass. Witsel’s dependable but expressionless, not the forcer of wills that the absent Nainggolan is. One is tempted to see this comeback as a vindication of their mental strength, but I see it more as the combination of luck (1st goal) and a Japanese side that played without guile, time-wasting, tactical fouling, or a desire to take it to penalty kicks.
The one interesting bright spot to consider in this vein: at the end of the game, on the pitch, the Belgians huddled for a talk. It wasn’t a celebration, but rather a “come to Jesus” moment: we have to get our act together or we’re going home. The deliverer: Romelu Lukaku. The captainship has passed from Kompany to Hazard, and the latter has been playing at top level here, but I think there’s a beating heart at the center of this team that might bind them together, and he’s it.
With all that negativity on my part towards the Red Devils, I should note that this was a positive display contravening one of my biggest pet peeves: subs that come on and look like they, too, have been running hard for 70 minutes, offering no extra jolt, looking perhaps it is they who need subbing. Let’s call it the “Lucas Melano Phenomenon”; Portland Timbers fans will understand immediately. Belgium needed the footballing equivalent of Naloxone to reverse certain death, and it came in the form of two super subs in Chadli and Fellaini--yes, a shocker to use those two names in that description, but they fit the billing. Chadli’s always seemed a pretty humdrum player to me, good at everything, not great at anything, not a bad man to surround with greater talent, while Fellaini’s always been associated with a game shorn of short passing and inventiveness, and a bit wicked at times. On this night, the two were brilliant, Chadli barely denied on a header and then popping up to serve one for a Lukaku thumper, while Fellaini brought quick, dancing feet (yes, I really said that--it’s what my eyes saw) into the pitch. He infused life and intention into a team utterly on the rocks. He’s also perhaps the most unguardable player in the world on headers, towering over most, strong enough to establish position, seemingly immune to efforts to shackle him, and quite wise about when to go for goal or nod down. It doesn’t require timing the cross to his run, for he simply sets up in a space and then attacks the ball with requisite power--no exquisite precision on the crosses is required. The equalizer that he provided seemed almost a foregone conclusion once Hazard’s corner kick was clearly headed toward the goalmouth.
Chadli’s shining moment would come at the end of a counter that takes its place among the greatest of such Cup counters, but none of those were last-gasp game winners like the Belgian runout. The second Courtois grabs the ball, Chadli pivots to change directions upfield, and then sprints full bore, before Courtois's release; he wouldn't stop until sliding into the goal box for the finish. Lukaku’s run drags one centerback into the other (another great example of the #9s footballing IQ), and De Bruyne expertly releases Meunier, filling the gaping space on the right with a bolt of speed and fitness that typifies his play. He’s a genuine specimen, and his first-time ball to Lukaku’s right foot was all quality. It would have been a tough strike, both a defender capable of blocking it and the keeper to beat. How he knew that Chadli was coming on his blind side, like a freight train, is a mystery I’d like to uncover. Imagine dummying that ball for no one? A twitter send-up, for sure. But Chadli flew in, was true, and that was probably the best last seconds of a game I've ever seen. Better than Kroos’s shot, even. All hail the super subs!
So a thrilling win and now Brazil, who will eye that left flank like a Fogo de Chao skewer unless Martinez has some kind of answer. Belgium will take some comfort in knowing that Brazil’s Casemiro misses on yellow card accumulation, for he is a master negater and means that Fernandinho cannot sub in for Paulinho, which has been the ongoing rotation. Hazard and De Bruyne will appreciate this alteration, I believe. But they’re going to have to step things up in a big way if they hope to stay on the pitch with a Brazil that’s looked better with each game.