One for the ages this one, and I have to eat some crow. I thought Brazil would win--and by golly, they almost did. But credit Belgium for a great performance, golden when they needed to be on both ends of the box, and Brazil for making it into an epic second half. As The Guardian’s Raphael Hohenstein wrote, it was the “rare occasion when you want both teams to win.”
1. Eating Crow: So...I made my prediction (3-1 Brazil) based on Martinez’s reliance on a back 3 that I thought couldn’t hold up; the utter incompetence of the preferred Carrasco; and the thought that he’d stick with the De Bruyne deep set up, where he seemed increasingly annoyed. Martinez changed it all up, and while one might argue that makes him a genius of sorts, I’m more inclined to say that it’s shocking that it took him that long to figure it out. By slotting the exceptional Thomas Meunier into a flexing right back, and then using Chadli to give Willian some extra work, Vertonghen and Alderweireld were given much more support. Brazil still largely had their way on the left flank, where Neymar, Marcelo, and Coutinho overloaded all game, but Meunier and Alderweireld limited the carnage mainly to a few crosses, and Witsel and Fellaini were all too happy when Neymar cut across the top of the box. Vertonghen, too, deserves credit--Willian took off his 2nd-half-of-Mexico Superman cape, and shrunk back to the unassuming wide presence he’d been for most of the Cup. Douglas Costa proved to be far more of an impact player, a realization that Tite will certainly regret came so late. This Belgian lineup was a massive improvement and there’s no way they win without it. Indeed, I noticed Carrasco after the game, and he looked just as he did when he played, not a hair out of place, or sweat broken, but ready for a fine dinner overlooking Monaco harbor, which I imagine he can afford.
2. Game of Inches: The result turned on two touches by Brazilian players on the end of beautifully nodded corner kicks early in the match.. The first simply caromed off Thiago Silva on to the Belgian post, with Courtois utterly stranded and Silva's boyish face knowing it wasn't quite there.
The second, from a magisterial near post flick by Kompany, caromed off Fernandinho right into his own net.
I wouldn’t say that a change of inches there clearly changes the game, as Brazil would play it open in any case, but it could have been very different, because….
3. Brazil really dominated the match, with plenty of scrambles in the box to boot, but Courtois made up the difference. According to Stats Zone:
-----27 Brazil shots to 9 for Belgium… -----9 to 3 on target… -----3 Big Chances to none… (how the goal isn’t a "Big Chance" is a mystery, I admit) -----463 passes to 301… -----172 passes in the final third to 52…
Courtois was Belgium's ultimate equalizer to this imbalance, coming up with at least four critical interventions, and Coutinho will rue the on-the-platter squared-back ball that he got from Neymar close to time. Brazil made a great game out of it, with a beautiful Gusto goal and the extra-time tip of Neymar’s curler.
As for the PK question after Gabriel Jesus nutmegged Vertonghen? Well, Kompany made great decisions most of the night but that wasn’t one of them. I’d say yes to the PK--you can’t slide in and get the man (with both legs)--but overturning the non-call was a trickier ask. I’d be curious to know the thinking by the VARheads. Maybe some karmic payback for Neymar launching himself while kicking Fellaini to simulate being tripped? Who can say?
4. The ghost of Casemiro hung heavy tonight, particularly when Lukaku danced past Fernandinho on the counter, which turned nothing much into everything. I thought that his absence offered Belgium hope and indeed hard to believe Casemiro wouldn’t have done better. Belgium will soon have their own experience with a crucial yellow card disqualification that might be a difference maker, because….
5. The brilliant Thomas Meunier picked up his second yellow of the tourney during a second exceptional performance, and won't be around for Mbappe, Griezemann and friends. Meunier was everywhere on his flank today, surging forward as he did on the winner against Japan, this time ultimately a decoy on De Bruyne’s goal. He was really the hinge on which the whole formation really turned. Without him, they have Chadli and...Carrasco again? I’ve already heard Vermaelen inside, Vertonghen outside, Alderweireld to right back for France--but that’s a very, very different proposition. Meunier doesn’t seem to find his way into most conversations about this team, but I suspect his absence will--like Casemiro’s--be the ghost in the machine for the France match. He really got the best of Neymar today, with a lot of help of course.
6. The target men battles: Once Brazil were down that second, they had to go for broke and that meant the three backs (Marcelo’s barely a back when they’re ahead let alone behind) and some epic duels with the Red Devil attackers. Miranda v. Lukaku was a heavyweight bout in the 2nd half, and the old Brazilian did exceptionally well (American fans might remember what happened to the unfortunately flattened Matt Besler when given the same task in last Cup’s quarterfinal). Hazard, however, was really getting the best of Fagner all night, using an exquisitely soft touch bringing the ball down and then able to turn on the jets. He was fouled seven times, most of those coming in the second half, I believe, and that was the main pressure valve release that gave Belgium a breather. He had to work alone much of the night and did everyone that was asked of him.
7. Counter 2.0: Once again, Belgian brilliance, quite well documented by SB Nation’s Nate Scott. The main key, as he notes was Lukaku. It’s no surprise that he holds off his man; indeed, no one in the Cup has come anywhere close to what he’s offered as a target (ah, what France, Germany, or Argentina would do for such a player!).
But then he turns, puts an Fernandinho into a temporary trance, holds off Paulinho and delivers to De Bruyne, probably the last guy in the world you’d like to see in this situation. What Scott doesn’t really fully credit, I think, is once again we have the bionic Meunier, barreling down the right flank, just giving Marcelo enough to think about. De Bruyne waits until Marcelo has moved just far enough to open the far post window, just in front Allison’s view of the ball, and sends a daisy cutter into the side-netting. An exceptional shot, but one we’ve been seeing from him ever since he arrived at Man City. That effectively was the margin today.
Overall, this was a very compelling match; I don’t think Belgium would win a best of 7 series, but they got the bounce they needed, another brilliant counter, and an elite Thibout Courtois performance in the nets. Entertaining football (a superb Coutinho-Gusto collaboration, too), and I am sad to see the Selecao go home but them’s the breaks; from the first glance at the bracket it seemed the winner of this game would win it all. I will have to assess this initial conclusion, and whether the gaping flank issues--sans Meunier--can be solved against France. Tonight, though, there was no Belgian flank steak on a skewer, but fresh crow de Bahia, eaten by yours truly.
Bon Appetit and Thanks for Reading,