After a weekend which saw the best two players in the world leave the tournament, followed by two ties which went to penalties, one of them resulting in the hosts knocking out the favourites, surely today was going to be a relaxing, straightforward drama-free day?

In Short

  • This afternoon was a Central/Latin American affair, as Mexico took on Brazil. As they did against Germany what already seems half a lifetime ago, El Tri started like a train, pegging Brazil back and creating chances which their attackers failed to even put on target.
  • Tite’s men gradually took control, Guillermo Ochoa coming up with a couple of great saves to keep it goalless at the break. Only five minutes into the second half, however, Brazil took the lead, Neymar completing a one-two with Willian to force the ball home from a couple of yards.
  • Brazil were happy to attack on the break and, two minutes from time, a Neymar shot was deflected by Ochoa into Roberto Firmino’s path and he sealed Brazil’s progress.
  • The blow for Brazil is that key midfielder Casemiro received a booking, meaning that he will miss Brazil’s quarter final.
  • The evening match looked to be a mismatch between Belgium (three wins in three) and Japan (win, loss and controversial draw). And the first half saw the Red Devils dominate possession, as expected, and look dangerous at set pieces, as even more expected. But the teams went in at half time with the score at 0-0.
  • Three minutes into the second half, a superb throughball helped Genki Haraguchi break the off-side trap and he embarrassed Jan Vertonghen before hitting a cross-shot home. 1-0 to Japan.
  • Three minutes later and Japan were 2-0 up, Shinji Kagawa seizing on a poor Vincent Kompany clearance and showing some great skill, before laying the ball off for Takashi Inui to power home brilliantly. Huge upset on!
  • With ‘Plan A’ not working, Roberto Martinez went for a more physical Plan B, Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini coming on for Mertens and Yannick Carrasco.
  • With 20 minutes remaining, Belgium were back in it with somewhat of a freak goal, Vertonghen ending a game of penalty area ping-pong with a long-distance header which was surely meant to go back into the danger area but instead looped into the net.
  • Five minutes later and Belgium’s height advantage told again as Fellaini towered over his marker to head home. 2-2.
  • Just as the match looked certain to go to extra time, a superb end-to-end move from Belgium ended with Chadli sliding home to break Japanese hearts and send Belgium through to a mouth-watering quarter final against Brazil.

Takeaways

  • A very cruel stat for Mexico: this is the seventh straight World Cup that Mexico have gone out at the second round stage. Some of those squads have been better than others, some have had bad luck with the draw and refereeing, but all have played entertaining football. They’re always a welcome participant and it would be nice to see them progress a little further.
  • Another stunning stat: Belgium’s comeback was the first time a team had come back from two goals down to win in the knock-out stages of the World Cup since West Germany beat England 3-2 in 1970, Presumably because they only won on penalties, we can’t count the 1982 semi-final where France lost on spot kicks, having led 3-1 in extra time to – inevitably – West Germany again.
  • What is it with Ochoa? He seems to perform like a demon in the World Cup. He was superb during his spell at AC Ajaccio (one particular performance against PSG going down in Ligue 1 legend). But in between, he has spent his time wondering unsuccessfully between Malaga, Granada and Standard Liege.
  • Talking of goalkeepers, as a Metz fan I am now familiar with Kawashima who, like no other keeper I can think of, can waver wildly between brilliant and awful from one week to the next. We had a little taste of both today, his flap and perhaps positioning leading to Belgium’s first goal, followed by two superb saves which looked to have helped Japan to extra time, until the late twist in the tail.
  • So cruel for Japan, who for a few minutes looked all set for a historic quarter final appearance, despite their hectic pre-tournament preparation.
  • We need to talk about Neymar. Few dispute what a fabulous player he is – one who genuinely has the potential to become one of the best ever. But he is also in the process of becoming one of the most dislikeable. Of course he gets a hard time from opposing defenders. But in today’s football he is protected a lot more than players past. Which makes his pathetic diving and rolling about all the more annoying. The showboating which straddles the line between cheeky and arrogant; the selfishness which frustrates (and clearly annoys his teammates at times); the two hairdressers who have travelled with him to Russia (one for cutting, one for colouring, in case you’re wondering): all these are just about tolerable and part of the Neymar soap opera. But the theatrics after his ankle had been stepped on – causing genuine concern that he had snapped his ankle, only to have him spring up and sprint away, was farcical and has rightly generated criticism from all parts. Let’s be honest, so far this has been Coutinho’s team while Neymar has been at the centre of his own little world on the left touchline. It needn’t be that way. His style of play should win fans all over the world. But the way he is going, he is losing many of them by the match.
  • Perhaps this is part of an end – finally – to the joga bonito myth. Some Romario-Ronaldo-Rivaldo-Ronaldinho moments aside, Brazil have not truly played beautiful football for 36 years. In the last two tournaments they have seemed more concerned with kicking opponents than caressing the ball. The current team looks much more capable of going all the way – but that is more because of a very solid defence than because of attacking flair. Maybe some of those pundits and commentators who fall over themselves to salivate on anyone in a yellow shirt should stop living in 1982.
  • Belgium tonight showed both sides of the game in order to fight back from 2-0 down tonight. With them struggling to get back into the match, they went route one to cancel out Japan’s lead. But then won the match with a beautiful team move. Special credit to two people – this may be painful for any Everton readers. Roberto Martinez will still have his critics – conceding two to Japan may suggest that he is still unable to coach a defence. But tonight his substitutions worked to a tee. The other is Lukaku: not in the goalscoring from of the first two matches and missing a relatively easy chance with the score at 0-2, he played a key part in the winning goal without touching the ball, first through his intelligent running to create space, and then with a cute dummy to leave the ball for Chadli. Brilliant football.

Goal of the Day

I refuse to make a choice between two of the goals in tonight’s epic match.

Kagawa’s cute control followed by Inui’s fantastic shot was an excellent piece of football.

But that late length-of-the-pitch Belgium winner was equally a thing of beauty. Enjoy!