- Belgium gave themselves a fright against Japan
- Substitutes came to the Red Devils’ rescue
- Will face Brazil in the quarter-finals on Friday
By Simon Massart with Belgium
Victory often tastes sweeter after the fiercest of battles. More accustomed to winning at a canter, Belgium had to wait until the very last seconds of their Round of 16 tie against Japan at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ before completing the most dramatic of comebacks. Left reeling by the Samurai Blue’s double strike early in the second half, the Red Devils had to dig deeper than they ever would have imagined to set up their dream outcome: a quarter-final against Brazil on Friday.
Adding to the drama of an epic contest, Belgium’s salvation came in the shape of three unlikely heroes. At fault for allowing Japan the space to score their opening goal, Jan Vertonghen was the first to help lift his team from the floor, scoring with an outrageous looping header that gave the Belgians fresh hope. “We started to fear the worst but we got a lucky break at just the right time,” he told FIFA.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez’s response to his side’s more than disappointing start to the second half was to bring on Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli. The Manchester United man wasted no time in bringing his height to bear and showcasing his prowess in the air, finding the back of the net with a header, just as he had done four years ago against Algeria. “There was a little bit of déjà-vu with the goal, but our reaction as a team showed that we think as a unit.”
Fellow sub Chadli also played his role to perfection, bringing fresh energy to Belgium’s left flank before completing the fightback in the closing seconds by rounding off a textbook counterattack. Injured for most of last season, one of the worst of his career, the versatile Chadli was a surprise inclusion in Martinez’s squad.
“Mentally it was really tough,” he said after scoring the most important goal of his career. “I was really suffering and that’s made my World Cup even more beautiful. I was thinking as much about my family as I was the team, who showed so much character after we got that all-important goal. I was dying to get back to my best and it all worked out.”
Thomas Meunier, the man who provided the pass for Chadli’s winner, had seen in training just how much the two supersubs had to offer. “We practised crosses for a long time on the day before the game and he [Fellaini] was putting everything into it.
"I just said to him that he was an out-and-out No9 because he’s got the lot and he’s so strong when he’s on his game. Like Chadli, he’s also got that little bit extra, which can make all the difference on days like today. They’ve really got something special about them. Today more than ever we’ve shown that we’re a team of 23, not 11.”
On emerging from the dressing room, Budweiser Man of the Match Eden Hazard found it hard to put his emotions into words, aware of how close he and his side had come to going out. “We got lucky with Vertonghen’s goal but then we showed how much spirit we have in the face of adversity. I’m as proud as I am relieved,” said the skipper, only too happy for Belgium’s supporting cast to grab the headlines.