Friday 20 July 2018

'B specials' lack of fear ensures their last-eight tie is a classic in the making

Brazil goalkeeper Ederson leaps through the air to make a save during training ahead of the quarter-final clash against Belgium. Photo: Getty Images
Brazil goalkeeper Ederson leaps through the air to make a save during training ahead of the quarter-final clash against Belgium. Photo: Getty Images

Jonathan Liew

It wouldn't be a World Cup quarter-final without a few mind games, of course. Brazil, according to the Belgium coach Roberto Martinez, are "the best team in the competition", and he urged his players simply to enjoy the experience. "I don't think anyone expects us to go through to the semi-finals," he added.

The underdog spirit is always a useful club to be able to pull out of your bag, and perhaps it was no coincidence that Belgium only really started to motor against Japan in Rostov on Monday night when they went 2-0 down and were staring humiliation in the face.

Their 3-2 win in injury time felt like a watershed moment for a team so long derided as tournament lightweights, one that finally proved they have the guts to gild their immense natural talent.

The truth is, though, that tonight's game in Kazan is one neither side can afford to lose. Brazil are favourites for the tournament and they will be favourites to prevail here, but fail and by the time Qatar rolls around in 2022, it will be more than 20 years since their last World Cup final.

Gathered

The vast crowds who gathered outside the Mirage Hotel in Kazan to greet their team bus will expect nothing less than a sixth crown in Moscow later this month.

And yet for their unfancied opponents, too, expectation weighs heavy. For all Martinez's strategic truckling, he knows as well as anyone that Belgium's greatest generation is in danger of failing to reach a single major tournament semi-final.

'The battle for possession will be key, and in this respect the great Kevin De Bruyne will be pivotal in midfield.' Image: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar
'The battle for possession will be key, and in this respect the great Kevin De Bruyne will be pivotal in midfield.' Image: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

Clearly Martinez is, to an extent, carrying the unwieldy legacy of his predecessor Marc Wilmots, and his four years of undercooked disappointment. But he can't say he didn't know the stakes.

"A defining game for our generation," captain Vincent Kompany said of the Brazil game. His team-mate Thomas Meunier agreed. "It's now or never for Belgium," he said.

So Belgium's big-game players need to show up in a big way, something they have only sporadically done during the tournament: the first half against Tunisia, the second half against Panama, the last 20 minutes against Japan, and - for the most part - not at all against England.

The rest they got during their dead-rubber should help guard against fatigue here, but they will not have needed to watch Brazil's wins against Serbia, Costa Rica and Mexico to know that this is a team with the capacity to make them run. The battle for possession will be key, and in this respect the great Kevin De Bruyne (below) will be pivotal in midfield.

Martinez has deployed De Bruyne a lot deeper than he normally plays for Manchester City, gathering the ball from the defence and trying to play it through the lines rather than picking the final pass.

He has become more of a leader for Belgium, too, and Martinez keenly remembers the moment when they went 2-0 down to Japan and De Bruyne could be seen cajoling his colleagues, urging greater effort from them, keeping morale high.

And if Belgium can work it into the final third, then they can rely on the tournament's most potent attack, with 12 goals so far. The two headed goals they scored against Japan and the final, devastating counter-attack that brought their winner are evidence of a team with plenty of different ways to score.

If Belgium need a goal late on, then expect the towering shadow and clanking levers of Marouane Fellaini to winch itself onto the pitch, the Plan B Belgium will hope they never need but are immensely grateful they have.

Against all this, though: enter Brazil, the tournament's meanest defence, a more cohesive side than any Brazilian team in recent memory, and now carrying a momentum that bears ominous hallmarks of their winning campaign of 2002.

They have 19 clean sheets in 25 matches, have conceded just one goal in four games, and more impressively just five shots on target. Fernandinho is a more than adequate replacement for the suspended Casemiro in midfield, and will be given the job of shackling De Bruyne.

Further forward, Brazil's high press will look to put Belgium's Premier League defence of Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Kompany off their stroke, providing the sort of quick transitions that the likes of Neymar and Philippe Coutinho pick off in their sleep. As Willian put it: "Our defence begins in attack."

Belgians, meanwhile, will hardly be enthused by the response of Thomas Meunier, Neymar's PSG team-mate, on how he planned to go about nullifying Brazil's greatest threat. "I don't know how to stop him," he said. "He's very unpredictable. Anyway, I'll do my best."

For Brazil's coach Tite, the preparation for the Belgium game will have begun as soon as they boarded the plane in Samara after the win against Mexico. Meticulous preparation, allied to a pragmatic flexibility, have been the hallmarks of Tite's Brazil.

In tandem with his assistant of 18 years Cleber Xavier, whose influence is such that he is given the job of answering tactical questions in press conferences, Tite has managed to give Brazil a clear playing identity subtly distinct from the sunny, fanciful football of popular legend. Build from the back. Press from the front. Mark zonally. Adjust your defensive block to the characteristics of the opposition.

And above all, be prepared to rip it all up if things go against you. In their last-16 game against Mexico, Tite switched from their usual 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 in the second half, bringing Neymar more central, closer to Coutinho, with Gabriel Jesus sacrificing himself on the left wing.

Naturally, it was a change that had been drilled in advance, and ended up turning the game. In many ways, it was reminiscent of the Corinthians team with which Tite won two Brazilian championships, a Copa Libertadores and a Club World Cup earlier in the decade. An obsessive student of the game, Tite is wedded to his ideas, but not so wedded that he isn't prepared to abandon them when the need arises.

Suffering

Pragmatism, not ideology, is his mantra, and his motto of "merecer vencer" ("earn the win") is a recognition of the suffering required to claim the biggest prizes. Simply turning up and being Brazil isn't going to cut it any more.

Of course, the closer Brazil get to the final, the more the scars of the past will threaten to open. The Selecao are not so much a football team as a travelling circus, a 24-hour telenovela, where nothing is ever whispered, only shouted.

The criticism of Neymar - who is just one yellow card away from a suspension - can scarcely fail to have penetrated the inner sanctum, and time and again Tite has been forced to defend his star player against accusations of diving and selfishness.

Even his mother leapt to his defence yesterday. "What matters is my son and what he will do in the future," said a defiant Nadine Santos. "Not what people are saying. Thank God, he is feeling well and continues to play well."

Yet this is in many ways a brand new Brazilian side: not a single player from the 7-1 defeat against Germany four years ago was in the starting line-up against Mexico. They don't fear defeat, and nor do Belgium.

"It used to be in Belgian culture that we would feel defeated even before a game like this," Kompany admitted.

"But all the players in our team who play at clubs around the world now believe 100pc we can beat Brazil. There is not one day I go to bed thinking 'what if we lose?'."

The World Cup is often characterised as an inferior product to the elite club game. Games like this are its response.

The pitch will sag with star names, global superstars and Nacer Chadli. The quality should be on a par with the latter stages of the Champions League. The tactical tussle should be fascinating; the stakes could scarcely be higher.

If Brazil and Belgium live their best lives for 90 or 120 minutes, we could be about to witness a genuine World Cup classic. (© Independent News Service)

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