KEIR RADNEDGE in RUSSIA —- The World Cup is staying in Europe after favourites Brazil were sensationally tumbled out of the 2018 finals by a Belgium team whose ruthless counter-attacking set up a semi-final duel with neighbours France in St Petersburg.
A thrill-a-minute quarter-final in Kazan was decided not only by two goals in the first halfhour but by a massively disciplined team effort from Roberto Martinez’s Red Devils who capitalised ruthlessly on Brazil’s early defensive indiscipline.
Belgium did live dangerously. Thibaut Courtois had to be at his best in the Belgian goal to defy Philippe Coutinho several times and Neymar in stoppage time. Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen all had the game of their lives.
Further forward the ingenuity of Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard plus the roaming pace of Romelu Lukaku asked searching questions of a Brazilian defence perhaps lulled into complacency by their previous three wins and a draw.
Brazil tightened their marking in the second half but, simultaneously, allowed nerves to creep into their play and either gave the ball away or misplaced their passes too often and looked shorter and shorter of ideas the longer the game went on.
In the opening minutes the Belgian goal led a charmed life under incessant Brazilian pressure.
Thiago Silva knocked a left-wing corner against Courtois’s right-hand post in the seventh minute then Paulinho miskicked in front of an open goal from a right-wing corner.
Remarkably Belgium then went ahead in the 12th minute with a left-wing corner from tireless captain Eden Hazard glancing into goal off the shoulder of Fernandinho. It was a record 11th own goal in these finals.
Play swirled dramatically from end to end. Coutinho had a low drive saved securely by Courtois who made an even better save to low angled drive from Marcelo.
Belgium continued to look dangerous on the break and proved the point to perfection on the halfhour when Romelu Lukaku weaved out of his own half and freed De Bruyne to arrow his drive inside keeper Alisson’s right-hand post.
The Manchester City midfielder, allowed acres of space by Brazil, thus became the 100th different marksman at these finals. As for Brazil, this was the first time they had conceded two goals since March 2016, before current boss Tite took over.
They not recovered to win from being two goals in the World Cup finals down since defeating Sweden 4-2 some 80 years ago, in 1938, and a repeat recovery ultimately proved beyond them, try as mightily as they did.
Gabriel Jesus wasted a Marcelo cross by planting a ‘free’ header over the bar and then the outstanding Courtois made further fine saves to a deflected a shot from Marcelo and another drive from Coutinho.
Still, Belgium were not satisfied to sit back. De Bruyne had a free kick tipped over the bar by Alisson and, from Nacer Chadli’s left-wing corner, the keeper was fortunate to manage a near-post save from a delicate flick by Vincent Kompany.
The second half was one-way traffic. Brazil tightened up on De Bruyne and Lukaku and brought on Roberto Firmino, then Douglas Costa then Renato Augusto to ramp up the pressure bearing down on the Belgian defence. Neymar and Gabriel Jesus claimed penalties in vain before Augusto, two minutes after arriving, headed home Coutinho’s cross.
In stoppage time Courtois, magnificently, tipped a Neymar effort over the bar as Brazil, ultimately, ran out of not only ideas but time.