Sub plot drags Belgium back from brink
Belgium 3 Japan 2
This is the World Cup that keeps on giving, keeps on enthralling, keeps on producing improbable story lines. Belgium looked like being the latest big name tipped to make waves in Russia to be brought back down to size with an almighty jolt by a relative minnow.
Trailing 2-0 after two Japan goals inside four minutes early in a second half that the first had left us hopelessly unprepared for, a golden generation suddenly stood on the brink of another ignominious failure, braced for more headlines about a glittering pool of players falling short and manager Roberto Martinez surely ready to collect his P45.
And then two Belgium substitutes were introduced to quite dazzling effect and a game that had threatened to spark a brutal inquest back in Belgium instead became a story about a jaw-dropping comeback, deep wells of character and a couple of inspired changes from Martinez.
A quarter-final against Brazil in Kazan on Friday could now prove a humdinger although it still appeared a distant dream when Jan Vertonghen atoned for the error that had initially opened the door to Japan with a looping header in the 69th minute.
Martinez had introduced Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli a few minutes before then in a desperate bid to regain some control in a game that was being taken away from then and it was that pair who would leave Japan nursing the sort of wounds that can take a long time to heal.
Fellaini equalised five minutes after Vertonghen had reduced the deficit but as the clock ticked towards the fifth and final minute of stoppage time most who had left spellbound in the Rostov Arena must have been braced for extra-time.
Surely there could not be any more drama? In fact, if there was to be any, it threatened to come from Japan as they won a corner after Thibaut Courtois had pushed a shot from Keisuke Honda. With Malang Diedhiou checking his way, Courtois ended up plucking the ball out of the air and rolled it into the path of Kevin De Bruyne a few yards in front of him.
And so began that extraordinary fightback. Surging forward in typically lung busting fashion, the Manchester City must have charged 70 yards through the middle before playing a perfectly weighted pass with the outside of his right boot into the path of Thomas Meunier, who had run that right channel.
Meunier crossed first time to Romelu Lukaku who, spotting Chadli running in behind him, dummied the ball quite brilliantly under pressure where the West Bromwich Albion forward tapped into an empty net. Japan's players dropped to their knees in agony while Belgium celebrated wildly.
When the final whistle was blown seconds later, the Belgium squad convened in a huddle in the centre-circle.
They have been called bottlers - hell, eight of the side that started this game began that dismal 3-1 quarter-final defeat to Wales at Euro 2016 - but this may just have been the moment when they truly began to believe they can win this tournament.
Martinez may be the first to counsel that their defending will need to improve to realise that dream, although there is little doubting their electricity going forward.
The game simply exploded after the interval. A little tense, a little cagey before hand, suddenly the shackles were off.
If Belgium were going to be exploited anywhere, it was in that space in behind their attack minded wing backs that was difficult for their outside centre-halves to patrol. Vertonghen, in particular, is not blessed with much pace and Japan will have spotted how even Panama had got in behind the Spurs defender in their opening 3-0 defeat to Belgium.
A mistake by Meunier in Japan's own third was pounced upon by the Japan left-back Yuto Nagatoma, who darted inside and found Shinji Kagawa in acres of space.
With Yannick Carrasco caught upfield, there was a space for Kagawa to thread the ball in behind Vertonghen for Genki Haraguchi to chase. The reality is Vertonghen should have cut out the Borussia Dortmund playmaker's pass but, caught in two minds, he nervously stuck out a leg instead of continuing his run and before he could atone Haraguchi was in.
Initially, it looked as though the Hanover forward had delayed his shot too long but he simply steadied himself and drilled a fine finish across Thibaut Courtois and in.
Belgium reacted quickly but no sooner had Hazard cannoned a shot off the post from Dries Mertens' pull back than Japan had scored again. Vincent Kompany's clearing header fell only far as the brilliant Kagawa, who controlled on his chest and laid the ball off to Takashi Inui.
With Axel Witsel slow to close him down, Inui bent a sublime finish beyond the reach of Courtois. If only the Chelsea goalkeeper's arms were 10cm longer, Jordan Pickford might have thought.
At that point, Belgium were heading out. They got back in the game, though, thanks to Kawashima's suspect positioning for Vertonghen's goal, the Tottenham defender looping a header over the Japan goalkeeper after his team had failed to clear a corner.
Fellaini and Chadli had been brought on by that point and it was Fellaini who rose above Makoto Hasebe, bullying the Japan captain in the air, to head home after Eden Hazard had twisted and turned and floated over a cross that was made for the Manchester United man.
That was 2-2. The real drama, though, was still to come. (© Daily Telegraph, London)