When Takashi Inui fired Japan into a 2-0 lead against Belgium in their second round clash in Rostov, it appeared as though the Red Devils’ so-called ‘Golden Generation’ would once again flatter to deceive at a major tournament.
Thanks to a switch in tactics and the adoption of a more direct playing style, however, Belgium struck three times in the last 20 minutes (including a thrilling winner just seconds from the end) to progress to the quarter-finals.
Having since dispatched tournament favourites Brazil with a superb 2-1 win in Kazan, the Red Devils are finally on the cusp of realising their immense potential. But can they actually win the World Cup, and if so how likely is this scenario to play out?
What have we learned about Belgium so far?
Heading in to the tournament, it was obvious that Belgium had their finest ever selection of players, including a host of Premier League stars such as Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku.
While the individual quality possessed by Belgium was never in doubt, however, questions remained about the strength of their team and their ability to compete when the going gets tough at a major tournament.
Since a relatively straightforward group stage, and following a harrowing first hour against the technically excellent Japanese, Roberto Martinez’s side have begun to provide some much needed answers.
Firstly, the spirit that they showed in overhauling a 2-0 deficit in their second round tie was truly impressive, while this game also highlighted the Belgian’s strength in depth and ability to change their approach during the heat of battle.
Against Brazil, Martinez and his side also produced a masterclass in tactical awareness and flexibility, switching seamlessly between a back three and a back four when in transition.
Not only this, but the performances of Lukaku, Hazard and de Bruyne (who thrived in a more advanced attacking role) proved that the nation’s biggest stars were able to rise to the big occasion, outshining their counterparts and determining the outcome of the game in the process.
Are there any factors that may count against Belgium?
With these points in mind, it’s little wonder that Belgium have now emerged as the second favourites for the World Cup behind France (who will be their semi-final opponents).
The team is also likely to be relatively fresh, having been based in a Moscow training camp and travelled a little over 3,000 miles during the group stages according to this study.
Sure, the squad has had to traverse longer distances in the knockout stages, but the fact they rested their key performers in the final group stage game against England should help to counteract this.
However, there remain some concerns about Belgium’s defence, which despite containing some superb individuals conceded a huge number of chances against Brazil.
In fact, were it not for some outstanding saves from Chelsea stopper Thibaut Courtois and a number of heroic, last-ditch blocks by Axel Witsel and the superb Marouane Fellaini, Brazil could well have come away with a narrow win against the Red Devils.
Belgium will need to defend in a more compact and efficient manner against France, while detailing plans to contain the explosive striker Kylian Mbappe.
The Belgians will also need to contend with a three-man French midfield that is extremely energetic and powerful, as the mobility of players like Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante could overwhelm Witsel and Fellaini.
One thing’s for sure; however, Martinez has both the squad and the know-how to compensate for this and create a suitable tactical set-up.
So, can Belgium win the World Cup?
The winners of Belgium’s semi with France will be clear favourites to lift the trophy, and to many this will make it the defacto final in all but name.
I’d be inclined to back Belgium at this stage, as while there’s no doubting the French pedigree they have yet to perform exceptionally well in this tournament and continue to rely on professionalism and organisation rather than brilliance.
In contrast, the Red Devils will enter this match in something like their best form, with their key match-winners providing decisive contributions and their much-maligned manager innovating in a way that is giving his side an edge.
If Belgium do win, they’ll be overwhelming favourites to lift their very first World Cup and finally deliver on the promise of an outstanding generation.
This would be quite an achievement, but there remains a genuine sense that Belgium may be about to realise their full potential on the international stage.
Written by Lewis Humphries
Follow Lewis on Twitter @LewisRHumphries
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