When thinking about everything that has taken place during the Russian World Cup, one simply has to step back and give a round of applause to Belgium. Having been fancied ahead of the tournament kickoff, they secured their qualification from the group stages after just two games, before beating England – who had also qualified – to get into the knockout stages as group winners. While that all sounds great, things could have been more comfortable as that result meant that they entered the knockouts in the half bracket which included a host of former world champions such as Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina and France. Somehow, Roberto Martinez’s side have brushed off the pressure and breezed through to the semi-final, matching their best-ever finish at a World Cup.
In Mexico 1986 they finished fourth having lost to eventual winners Argentina in the semi-final and then tasting defeat against France in the third-place playoff. They find themselves up against the French once again on Tuesday evening with a spot in the World Cup final up for grabs. While, historically, France would have been expected to win this one easily, something has changed. Belgium – who peaked at No. 2 in FIFA’s world rankings at one stage – are considered only slight underdogs, and if they can get their game plan right they do indeed stand every chance of getting the result they need to secure their most successful World Cup campaign in history.
The manner in which they have reached this stage has been simply stunning. Starting off the knockout stages against surprise package Japan, the Belgians perhaps slightly underestimated their opposition at the start, falling 2-0 down at the hour mark. An incredible comeback saw Nacer Chadli score in injury time to give Belgium the win after Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini had pulled them level – that match was an absolute thriller. Amidst the manic celebrations at the end of that game, there was a storm on the horizon – a huge cloud. That cloud was yellow, representing the reminder that five-time world champions Brazil were watching, and waiting in their midst.
As things turned out, the South Americans’ threat was dealt with expertly in the quarters as Belgium ran out 2-1 winners in what was perhaps the most impressive result at that stage of the tournament. While few would deny Belgium would offer Brazil problems, there were also not too many who fancied them to advance despite Brazil’s relatively sub-par performances at times during the campaign. Questions had been raised about coach Martinez’s tactical nouse before the tournament kicked off, but questions were answered and critics were silenced as the nation marched on to a meeting with neighbours France.
With players such as Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku raring to go, few can argue that Belgium can actually do it – they could go on to win the cup. They will need to take it up yet another gear, however. Brazil, as mentioned, never quite fully found their groove but France have been sweeping opposition aside at a canter at times, and so this will be a different game entirely.
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