Belgium reminded by Japan just how tough winning its first World Cup will be

Belgium’s World Cup dreams are still alive.

That’s the immediate and obvious takeaway after the Belgians – with a squad so talented that the Red Devils were universally considered a dark horse title threat despite little history of success at the international level – were pushed to the limit by Japan, which took a two-goal lead early in the second half of their Round of 16 clash before Belgium roared back to win 3-2 on Nacer Chadli’s goal seconds before the final whistle.

On paper, the match in Rostov-on-Don shouldn’t have been close. Belgium, the sport’s third-best team according to FIFA’s rankings, was up against the No. 61 Blue Samurai. Of the eight matchups to open the tournament’s knockout phase, this one seemed the easiest to predict. Few thought that Japan would even survive the group stage. The only real question heading into Monday’s win-or-go-home contest was how lopsided Belgium’s victory would be.

So after Brazil beat Mexico comfortably earlier Monday to advance to the final eight, it was hard not to wonder if Belgium, with a starting lineup full of difference-makers from some of the most decorated club teams in Europe’s elite Champions League, would be able to jettison the five-time World Cup champs en route to its first World Cup semifinal appearance since 1986.

Japan had other ideas. Manager Akira Nishino had his team expertly set up to trouble Belgium’s three-man backline of Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany. The Blue Samurai’s high press was on them from the opening kickoff, with wingers Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui stretching Belgium’s defenders while playmaker Shinji Kagawa, who nearly scored with an early shot from distance, pulled the strings in the middle.

Belgium’s team celebrates Nacer Chadli after he scored the decisive final goal during the round of 16 match between Belgium and Japan at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Rostov Arena, in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Monday, July 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

But Belgium settled into the match soon enough, and Roberto Martinez’s side had no shortage of chances to take the lead. Their front three of Dries Mertens, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard never seemed to get the service they required from the midfielders behind them to break down Japan’s disciplined defensive scheme, however. And the Japanese continued to threaten on the counter when the ball turned over, with forward Yuya Osako squandering a free header by hitting it straight at goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois a half-hour into the match.

When Haraguchi scored three minutes into the second half and Hazard hit the post at the other end seconds later, it looked like it wouldn’t be Belgium’s day. Japan’s confidence only grew when Inui doubled the advantage just four minutes later.

“They frustrated us, and they were clinical on the counter,” a clearly relieved Martinez told the official broadcaster afterward. “And then all of a sudden it was a test of character.”

Belgium passed it with flying colors. As soon as Martinez replaced Mertens and Yannick Carrasco with Chadli and Marouane Fellaini in the 65th minute, things started to click.

Vertonghen pulled back a goal almost immediately. Then Hazard spun out of trouble deep in Japan’s end and sent a perfect cross to Fellaini, who headed home the equalizer with 15 minutes remaining.

To its immense credit, Japan kept pressing for the goal that would’ve sent it to its first quarterfinal. Then just when the match appeared headed to extra time, Courtois rose to catch a wayward corner kick and launched his team’s classy attackers on a break that, after a textbook Lukaku dummy run, ended with Chadli side-footing the winner past the outstanding Eiji Kawashima.  

Just like that, Belgium is a game away from the final four. Neymar and mighty Brazil stand in the Red Devils’ path, however, and the way Brazil defended against Mexico makes you think it will take a far better performance than this one to get past the prohibitive favorites, even if Belgium does present the South Americans with some interesting physical and technical challenges.

That’s a worry for another moment. For while this win came later than expected, Belgium survived the scare and is still kicking, having earned another chance to prove that it is as good as advertised.

Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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