Friday 14 December 2018

Belgium may shuffle deck to take sting out of Neymar

Belgium's Nacer Chadli. Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty
Belgium's Nacer Chadli. Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty

James Ducker

It was after midnight in the bowels of the Rostov Arena and Kevin De Bruyne had been asked if Belgium's quarter-final with Brazil in Kazan on Friday might be a classic. "I don't really care. If we get a scrappy 1-0 win in the last minute, I'll be happy," he said.

As De Bruyne and his team-mates, euphoric but exhausted, filed through the mixed zone, the same question was asked by waiting reporters of all nationalities.

Was their extraordinary comeback from two goals down against Japan to win 3-2 on Monday a coming-of-age moment, a turning point for a team who have routinely come up short in tournaments?

Would Brazil encounter a side who finally have the belief and wherewithal to match their considerable talent?

Nacer Chadli, scorer of the 94th-minute winner that has already joined the annals of great World Cup goals, a 93-yard counter-attack of blistering pace and precision, felt so.

"Yeah, it's a big moment for us," the West Bromwich Albion forward said. "To come back like that in a very tough game said a lot. It takes a special group to do that and I think we have a special group."

Eden Hazard had talked before the game about this being Belgium's moment to shine and, bearing in mind that Romelu Lukaku and Yannick Carrasco were the only members of the team that started against Japan who will not be in their 30s by the next World Cup in Qatar in 2022, it is hard to disagree.

Their previous quarter-final appearance ended with a whimper, a dismal 3-1 thumping by Wales at Euro 2016 that cost manager Marc Wilmots his job, but Marouane Fellaini is convinced that they are a different beast now.

"We're more mature than before," the Manchester United midfielder said.

"We've been working together for a long time now, you can't forget that, and want to show everyone what we can do against Brazil."

It was Fellaini's introduction alongside Chadli in the 65th minute that turned the game on its head. Belgium were trailing 2-0 at that point but, within four minutes of the pair coming on, Jan Vertonghen had pulled a goal back before Fellaini equalised with a header of brilliant brute force.

Chadli's dramatic winner came with seconds left. "That was the best half-hour of my life," Chadli said. Belgium manager Roberto Martinez now has a big tactical decision to make. The former Swansea City, Wigan Athletic and Everton manager has been faithful to a 3-4-3 formation but Japan exposed its defensive shortcomings.

Martinez has not worked much on a 4-3-3 but it might be the most logical solution if Belgium are to reduce the space in which Neymar and Willian can work, offer an ageing defence far more protection and provide an extra body in midfield. Thomas Meunier was excellent against Japan but fellow wing-back Carrasco was poor and will be lucky to keep his place.

"I do think we may have to adjust our way of playing against Brazil - more sitting back and playing on the counter," goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said.

"Anyway, it is up to the coach to figure out how to play. I have faith in him."

De Bruyne has been critical of Martinez's tactics in the past and hopes he gets it right in Kazan. "There are always lessons," the Manchester City midfielder said.

Nonetheless, Courtois believes Brazil will watch the way Belgium reacted to being behind and realise they will also have their work cut out.

"Brazil will see we are strong physically, that we can go until the last minute," Courtois added. "They are maybe the strongest team at the moment but we will do everything to win." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Who is your sportstar of the year?

Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.

Prizes include, a trip to Old Trafford to watch Man United take on Liverpool in the Premier League, tickets to Ireland's home games in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.

Simply click here to register your vote

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport