Thursday 20 September 2018

Stephen Hunt: Free-flowing Belgium bring razzle-dazzle we expect from Brazil

Explosive attacking trio will give France massive problems in game that would be a worthy final

Kevin De Bruyne was outstanding as Belgium knocked Brazil out of the World Cup (AP)
Kevin De Bruyne was outstanding as Belgium knocked Brazil out of the World Cup (AP)
Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne has been excellent at this tournament and has taken the form that he showed for Manchester City over to Russia. Photo: Frank Augstein/AP
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

Brazil are not supposed to go out of the World Cup in the quarter-finals. Every four years we expect them to turn on the style, entertain us and win the competition. And every four years, they let us down.

Don't get me wrong, Brazil did not play that badly in this World Cup. Unbeaten until they lost on Friday, they had their moments in some of the earlier matches but they simply went out to a very good Belgian team.

Their coach Tite tried to find a structure that suited Neymar and got the best out of Philippe Coutinho. It nearly worked. The pair of them linked up well but, if I had one criticism of Tite it was that he didn't play Roberto Firmino ahead of Gabriel Jesus and persevered with the Manchester City man throughout the competition.

And then there's Neymar. He was dangerous at times and showed plenty of skill and endeavour. But if he is going to get to the level of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo he has to be more ruthless and clinical. We just didn't see that from him in Russia.

He has also looked foolish at times. His behaviour has been embarrassing and just not becoming of one of the best players in the world. It is interesting that there is talk of him leaving Paris St-Germain this summer. What team wants to sign a player who thinks those histrionics are acceptable?

Belgium have had no such distractions in these finals and have been really impressive en route to the semi-final.

Their first goal against Brazil may have been an own goal, but it was all about the delivery of the set-piece from Nacer Chadli, and it goes to show the importance of the guy running across the front post, even if he does not make contact with the ball. Vincent Kompany's presence in that area created the confusion for the goal off Fernandinho's shoulder.

The second goal from Kevin De Bruyne was a piece of pure brilliance. It was great technique from a guy at the top of his game who is looking to get to the next level, and who looks determined to reach the World Cup final.

De Bruyne has been excellent at this tournament and has taken the form that he showed for Manchester City over to Russia. On Friday night, he completely ran the show in midfield against his City team-mate Fernandinho.

And once Belgium got that first goal, they opened up and played with the confidence they have shown throughout the competition, and at the tempo they are comfortable with. They played like we expected Brazil to play.

One of the revelations of this Belgian side has been Romelu Lukaku. I would much rather see the powerhouse centre-forward who is prepared to run wide and take on defenders, rather than just hold the ball up in the middle of the pitch. He looks like he is pretending to be Thierry Henry, who just so happens to be on manager Roberto Martinez's coaching staff.

Lukaku has been a different animal in Russia and he seems to want to receive the ball wide and run down the sides of the opposition defence. That desire to make those runs has to come from the manager too.

Eden Hazard looks focused and is another who will do his utmost to take his side all the way. He is not just looking to score goals himself, but has been more of a team player in this tournament. From what I have seen, his body language is positive and he is just getting on with his job.

When you watch Belgium play, you are waiting for that explosion from Lukaku or Hazard. They always look one pass away from breaking through and, if they get the first goal, they are very difficult to play against because they are very difficult to dispossess.

Tournament management seems to suit Roberto Martinez, which might explain why he won the FA Cup with Wigan Athletic but always found himself battling relegation as a Premier League manager. He struggled over the course of a whole season at Everton too, where the expectations are even greater, of course.

If he does rely on tactics, positivity and a free style of play, you can just about get away with that in competitions like a World Cup, but it is difficult to maintain that over the course of a whole season. It also helps to have world-class players like Hazard and De Bruyne in your team because you can work with their strengths.

Martinez has certainly got the Belgian players playing for him. To get Lukaku to bomb around the pitch as he has proves that, and only Jose Mourinho knows why he cannot do that for Manchester United. I suspect he just hasn't been asked.

It will be an intriguing semi-final against France which, on paper, looks like it would be a good enough encounter for the final. Yet I suspect it is going to be a tight game which is difficult to call. The Belgian front three can probably cause more problems than the French, and if they get the first goal, I can see Belgium winning it.

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