It was a game that was balanced on a knife’s edge. The first half pretty much saw Belgium dominate as the likes Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku threatened to cut loose. The tide then shifted as Japan showed their class. Throughout the first half, they had shown glimpses of magic with the creative genius of Takashi Inui causing problems for Belgium.
Then from a counter-attack, Japan broke loose and Genki Haraguchi scored as Jan Vetroghen failed to intercept a through ball. Soon Inui extended Japan’s lead with a thumping effort from outside the area.
Japan were mesmerizing in the second half. Dominating the game, keeping Belgium in check and making them play to their own tempo.
Belgium’s moment of reckoning came and they responded. A double sub from Belgium’s Spanish manager Roberto Martinez would change the game – one that should perhaps be considered the best game of the knockout stages if not the overall tournament.
He brought on Marouane Fellaini and Naser Chadli. Belgium started attacking through the wide areas, looking to put in crosses into the area. An outlandish goal from Vetroghen brought Belgium back into the game as his looped header managed to beat the Japan goalkeeper for flight before sailing at an awkward angle into the net. Fellaini made his height count as he headed in an Eden Hazard cross five minutes later to take the score to 2-2 in the 74th minute.
End to end battle ensued and at the death it looked like the game would go to extra time. Then Japan got a free-kick and responsibility fell to the veteran Keisuke Honda. He struck a good left-footed effort which Thibaut Courtois saved with a desperte dive. Only a minute remained and if Japan could find a goal, there would be no comeback for Belgium. The resulting corner after the Honda free-kick however fell straight into Coutois’s hand and he quickly released De Bruyne through the middle of the park.
The Manchester City midfielder powered through with a great run that left Japan midfielders in his wake with most of them still caught upfield. De Buyne released Thomas Meunier on the right-side and all of a sudden Beligium were four against two in a lightning counter-attack. Meunier found the right ball, Lukaku played his part with a dummy to let the ball slip between his legs and Chadli, who had threatened with driving runs since coming on, finished off the move to give Belgium a memorable comeback victory.
The Japanese players were on the verge of clinching a memorable victory of their own. These group had looked like they were going to make Japanese history. It would have been their first World Cup qurterfinal but it was not to be. A dream shattered by a super counter-attack. Belgium showed character in the end. No team had come back from two goals down since West Germany in the 1970 World Cup against England. It was historic. It was relief too. Japanese players were all lying down in the grass, unable to absord what had just happened. For this fine Japan team, there were only dispair and broken hearts.
It was a comeback under 30 minutes for Belgium and it could be a defining moment for their generation as they will now start to look forward to playing five-time world champions Brazil in the quarterfinals.