MOSCOW — In a thrilling knockout encounter, Belgium came back from a 2-0 second-half deficit against Japan to win 3-2, while Brazil ended Mexico’s World Cup at the round of 16 stage for the seventh straight tournament in a 2-0 victory.
Second-half goals from Neymar and Roberto Firmino ensured that there would be no fifth game for Mexico yet again, while Belgium scored three unanswered, including the winner on a clinical breakaway in stoppage time, to avoid a colossal disappointment and deliver a dagger to a valiant Japan side that was deservedly in front.
Here are my three thoughts on the day:
• Belgium and Japan just played the best half of the World Cup
You never know in this sport when you’re about to see something that sticks with you as a lifelong memory. If I’m being honest, the Belgium-Japan matchup appeared going in like it was going to be a one-sided affair for the Belgians. But in a five-goal second half that will long be remembered, Japan built an astonishing 2-0 lead with some of the best collective soccer we’ve seen in Russia 2018, only for Belgium to respond to the challenge by roaring back with three goals. The winner was a stoppage-time stunner by Nacer Chadli after an all-time classic dummy in the box at speed by Romelu Lukaku.
Japan deserved its two-goal lead. The first came off a gorgeous transition (combined with a Jan Vertonghen misplay) that ended with Genki Haragushi appearing to wait too long before lashing a pinpoint strike for 1-0. Then Takashi Inui hit a laser from distance for 2-0, and suddenly another World Cup favorite looked like it was heading out.
But give Belgium coach Roberto Martínez credit for making smart changes. He replaced Dries Mertens with Marouane Fellaini, hardly a like-for-like sub, and Fellaini’s height advantage over the Japanese was never clearer than when he headed home the equalizer for 2-2 (after Vertonghen’s looping, not entirely intentional header had pulled one back already).
Chadli came on as well for Yannick Carrasco and ended up scoring the game-winner on a thrilling counter led by Kevin De Bruyne that was eerily reminiscent of Landon Donovan’s goal for the U.S. at World Cup 2010 against Algeria. The presence of mind that Lukaku had to do a dummy in the box and leave the ball for Chadli was incredible.
Now we know how Belgium can respond to real pressure, to the challenge of going out in the World Cup. It’s a killer for Japan, which played so well, but what a thrilling game overall.
• Mexico couldn't sustain its opening-game momentum
Ultimately, Mexico had a giant missed opportunity when it could have won its group with merely a tie against Sweden in the finale. That would have put Mexico in the weaker side of the bracket against Switzerland instead of in the tougher side against Brazil.
But Sweden slammed Mexico 3-0, and that will be what Mexican fans should remember most from this tournament (as well as a 1-0 win against Germany that gave fans a great thrill but in the end didn’t mean Mexico went any farther than it ever does). Brazil simply showed far more quality in the final third (largely through Willian and Neymar) than did Mexico, which had chances but not the same quality.
The wait for the fifth game will extend at least another four years.
• Brazil-Belgium is going to be a barnburner
Belgium may want to make some changes for this one, but this is one of the marquee matchups that many foresaw at the beginning of the tournament and hoped would happen. Now it has.
Brazil is growing into the tournament and played its best game in Russia against Mexico. Meanwhile, Belgium will take confidence from its survival against Japan and the belief that it can suffer and still respond. This World Cup has been fantastic, and it looks like that will only continue.
Grant Wahl has covered soccer for 22 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, Masters of Modern Soccer, details the craft of soccer position by position. You can order it here.