Masterful Martinez has last laugh
Brazil 1 Belgium 2
Foxed and forlorn, Brazil didn't so much crash out of the World Cup as sidle out of it, waft away, slink quietly into the night as if it were a bad party.
Years from now, future generations will wonder how the biggest and proudest footballing nation on earth were dislodged by a country with a smaller population than Sao Paulo.
The truth is it barely felt shocking at all, except perhaps in the manner of it: a team capable of such thrilling heat surrendering in a lukewarm gruel of dead ends, stray bullets and squandered opportunities.
This wasn't a trauma in the ilk of their 7-1 capitulation against Germany four years ago. This wasn't a mental meltdown of the sort we saw in Belo Horizonte. They had the chances at either end of the game to win it. In between, however, they were simply picked apart by a Belgian side who had come close to perfecting the art of modern counter-attacking football. By the time the next World Cup rolls around in 2022, Brazil won't have reached a final for 20 years. That's not a blip. It's increasingly beginning to resemble a complex.
And so if 2014 felt like anguish, this felt like anaesthetic: a numb Brazil lacking inspiration or leadership, playing in a weirdly beige atmosphere, solemn in all the places it should have been sunny, flat in all the places it should have been bouncing.
There was a moment when, with Belgium 2-0 up, Eden Hazard and Axel Witsel just passed the ball between themselves five or six times in a row. Inside the Brazilian half. Before the whistle had even blown for half-time. That was the measure of Belgium's supremacy during that opening period: Brazil have been beaten in the past, they've been humiliated, but they've rarely been schooled like this.
On the touchline, Tite was comprehensively schooled by Roberto Martinez - a manager best known for winning the FA Cup with Wigan Athletic - who sent his side out in an imaginative shape that it took Brazil at least half the game to work out. The defence - three men with the ball, four without it - were outstanding. Thibaut Courtois was superb in goal. But really this was a triumph that belonged to the front three: the incisive Kevin de Bruyne, the disdainful Romelu Lukaku, the slippery Hazard, all moving around as fluidly as water.
Behind them, Marouane Fellaini and Witsel provided the ballast in midfield, the terrifying double afro acting as a sort of secondary back line, not creating or distributing but simply deterring, screening, spoiling. Brazil tried to press high, but there was very little to press: no sooner had Belgium won the ball than they had spirited it up the field to the front three, pulling Brazil's midfield to bits.
Fernandinho, the inadvertent scorer of Belgium's first goal, had a wretched game. Willian scarcely figured at all. Even the great Neymar barely got a sight of goal and when he did he usually fell over.
And yet, despite all this: Brazil had chances. For the first 10 minutes, as Belgium adjusted to their new formation, Brazil could have cut them open two or three times. Belgium's goal, off the shoulder of Fernandinho from a near-post corner, came very much against the run of play. But instead of a fevered response, Brazil simply carried on at their same sedate pace, the same patient triangles, like singers crooning the same song even though the backing music had changed.
Within half an hour, they were 2-0 down, and from their own attacking corner. Fellaini headed it away; Lukaku gathered the ball on the right. Decoy runners scattered around him like fireworks. With Fernandinho uncommitted. Lukaku simply ran straight past him. The pass went right to De Bruyne, whose finish was clipped satisfyingly into the bottom corner.
Tite had to do something at the break. He brought on Roberto Firmino: an extra man prowling between the lines, an extra man pressing.
And Brazil began the second half with more aggression and urgency. Gabriel Jesus made way for Douglas Costa, but not before he had nutmegged Jan Vertonghen and gone down in the area to provoke frenzied penalty appeals. Yet Belgium remained an ever-present threat: on the hour, Hazard missed a good chance to make the game safe there and then.
Instead, Brazil made them sweat. Fellaini, who had a poor second half, stood too far off Philippe Coutinho, allowing him to deliver a dainty little cross to the back post. There Renato Augusto - who had come on for Paulinho just three minutes earlier - headed powerfully past Courtois. Now we would see what Belgium were made of.
And as Brazil's fans finally and belatedly found their voice, their team responded. Augusto dragged wide with the goal at his mercy. Coutinho tried to place a shot from 12 yards, but sent it instead in the general direction of the Kazakh border. In the second minute of injury time, Courtois made a magnificent fingertip save to deny Neymar. That was all Brazil had to offer. The game was up.
And so as the final whistle blew, Firmino booted the ball angrily into the crowd. Thiago Silva closed his eyes, as if trying to unsee. Marcelo lost all strength and had to picked up off the turf. Neymar simply curled his tongue into a tight coil and pondered.
Meanwhile, Kompany gathered his troops into a circle and pumped his fist. Every single one of his team-mates followed. This felt like a coming of age, in so many ways. France await in St Petersburg next Tuesday. But after the most famous win in its history, this little country will fear nobody.
© Independent News Service