Belgium has a golden generation, but somehow a left back did not emerge, and they're going to pay against the Brazilian wide men.
Brazil has everything going for it here, though not without some questions and Belgian thunder and lightning with which to contend. First, Casemiro is out on yellows, and he’s to Brazil (and Real Madrid) as Kante is to France (and Chelsea): a human vacuum who swallows passes and enemies alike, and kickstarts transitions. At Real, he suddenly emerged as the starter after Zidane had seen one-too-many poor defensive performances, and then they won every game--until he got hurt. He’s become a legend there, and his absence is notable here as well.
Fernandinho is a capable substitute, certainly, but he’s been a key substitute when Paulinho’s legs are done, and is not as defensively-minded as Casemiro. This of course might open some space up for Hazard and potentially De Bruyne if they catch Fernandinho out. I think Thiago Silva and Miranda v. Lukaku will be a great matchup to see, and tend to think it will be less Lukaku scoring than creating (whether by pass or movement) goals if they come. The other chink the Brazilian armor may come, oddly, from Marcelo’s return. He’s got to be the best left back in the world, but his adventuring will open up some spaces, and Meunier and Mertens both have the pace to get into his vacations. The Brazil of the past always seemed to gift-wrap one goal a game--let's see if that's a tradition they've left behind. Hazard has been Belgium's best player, and if they get some magic I sense he'll be at the center of it.
Beyond that, I suppose the only nagging question is whether Neymar can keep his persona from getting in the way of the brilliant footballer that he is. You’ve seen it all, the exquisiteness and the utter ridiculousness that he can bring. If he gets lost in “woe is me/look at me,” Belgium’s good enough to make that into a big advantage (as Switzerland did quite well).
I think, though, that Belgium’s got glaring problems that--when matched with Brazil’s strengths--are likely fatal. Maybe there’s just no left back in the entire country, so the best we can hope for is Carrasco to be replaced by Chadli on the left flank. I've been merciless on Carrasco, but it's warranted. But any way you slice it, Willian’s going to be licking his chops, and I suspect whomever plays on the left to get pinned back. His second-half against Mexico was electric, a reminder of what he can be, and it's open season on his side.
Belgium’s far better on the right, with the seemingly bionic Thomas Meunier, but Neymar will inevitably find himself in space with Toby Alderweireld, a great defender but no one can be expected to match up too often with Neymar 1 v. 1. So we probably end up with a very pinned back Meunier as well, enough to negate Belgium’s width but not enough to prevent Neymar from having his chances. Essentially, Belgium has managed to get most of its best players on the pitch--at least the ones they brought--but they’ve got too many central players and not enough wide men, and Brazil will feast on that imbalance wide while more likely to contain Belgium’s strengths.
I also have real doubts about the mental toughness of Belgium, who still seem more a team of stars than a unit. I don’t think the win against Japan was a vindication of unbeatable spirit, but more some luck that came with Vertonghen’s misplaced goal. If they can get up, that can smooth a lot of those doubts out, but if they get behind, I think we’ll see the cantankerous side start to bring the internal fracturing. De Bruyne is clearly not enamored with the set-up. And even if they move him up (Hazard advancing in place of Mertens), they still have a left side problem that everyone will want a piece of. If France get by and Belgium make it, that’s Mbappe on that flank, so that’s why Belgium’s my least likely to make it through to the Final.
Oh, and Martinez out, Thierry Henry as new head man within two weeks.
Prediction: Brazil 3, Belgium 1