The best half of football during the 2018 World Cup ended with Nacer Chadli scoring a last-gasp goal to give Belgium a 3-2 comeback win against an extraordinary Japan.
— FIFA World Cup ? (@FIFAWorldCup) July 2, 2018
One minute in, Japan already had a shot on goal by Shinji Kagawa. The Samurai Blue were supposed to be the weaker team, but they came into the game full of confidence, with a clear plan how to combat Belgium. Their high press was preventing their opponents’s organization. In defense, they were tackling in numbers, so much so that at times it looked like there were more Japanese than Belgians on the pitch. Quite an impressive display for an underdog.
In the 25th minute, Maya Yoshida did just enough to disbalance Lukaku and stop him from getting a shot off from a couple of meters out. Moments later, Hazard had a shot saved by Kawashima and there was no one to get onto a ball returned into play by Vincent Kompany after a Kevin De Bruyne cross. It concluded a period of around seven minutes of Belgian domination. The Japanese’s movement was excellent. Their passes were the ones letting them down. There were no goals after 45 minutes. Akira Nishino had obviously spent a lot of time studying Belgium’s tactics, because his players’ positioning was almost impeccable. They were reading most of Belgium’s ideas and averting them before they even occurred.
A stolen ball, a long pass to Genki Haraguchi that Vertonghen read, but failed to intercept, one move by Haraguchi to freeze the Belgian center back and a shot from a tight angle past Thibaut Courtois and into the far corner. 1-0 Japan. Shock! Eden Hazard smacked the goal post a couple of minutes after the goal from an ideal position. What a start to the second half! You think that was surprising? In the 52nd minute, Takashi Inui cracked a shot from 25 meters out and beat Courtois. An amazing moment and a magnificent goal. Japan was leading 2-0.
Another miss from an ideal position by Belgium. This time it was Romelu Lukaku who didn’t manage to direct a header properly. Carrasco and Mertens left the pitch in the 65th minute and were replaced by Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli. In the 70th minute, hope reappeared for The Red Devils. Jan Vertonghen, the guilty party in Japan’s first goal, scored a header from what looked like an impossible position to do so. A ball came to him after a corner kick and when everyone awaited a pass back towards the center of the box, the Tottenham defender directed the ball towards goal, catching Kawashima by surprise. Vertonghen lobbed the goalkeeper and reduced The Samurai Blue’s lead.
Roberto Martinez’s two substitutions made a huge difference and changed everything. Belgium looked like a different team. In the 74th minute, the result was tied. Eden Hazard escaped his marker with a smart body feint and sent a cross with his left foot in a place where three teammates were waiting. Marouane Fellaini was the one the ball came to and he headed it in. Seeing how the Belgians played during the ten minutes when they scored makes you wonder what they didn’t play the same way until then.
Honda for Haraguchi and Yamaguchi for Shibasaki were Akira Nishino’s first two substitutions. Kagawa found Honda with a great pass and Kompany’s block was all there was between a serious goal threat and a corner kick. Kawashima made back-to-back game-saving stops in the 86th minute. Chadli and Lukaku were the players whose headers were rejected. In the 91st minute, Courtois was forced to make a save to prevent an own goal by Axel Witsel. In the 94th minute, he had to make another save, this time on a Keisuke Honda’s drop-kick set piece from 35 meters out.
The Japanese had a corner kick with seconds left on the clock. They relaxed and they were punished. Courtois grabbed the ball, quickly threw it to De Bruyne, who pushed forward with three opposition players chasing. Thomas Meunier opened up on the right side, De Bruyne found him and the wing back sent a cross. With Nacer Chadli all alone behind him, Lukaku jumped over the ball and put his teammate in a situation where he couldn’t miss. Chadli scored with the last shot of the match and sent Belgium through. What a sad ending for the brave Japanese.