In years to come, when this stadium is a crumbling white elephant, they will sit in almost empty stands, hear the wind whisper across the marsh that surrounds it and believe what they hear is the ghosts of giants. In three games Kazan has claimed the winners of 11 World Cups. First Germany went, insipid against South Korea. Then, in a full-blooded epic, Argentina were blown away by France. And then fell the biggest of them all, Brazil, outwitted and outbattled by Belgium, who will face France in Tuesday’s semi-final.
Brazil had chances. A few ricochets in the box did not fall their way. The hysteria that always surrounds them, the sense of desire and expectation, perhaps becomes at times inhibitive. Tite, almost certainly, will be blamed, because that is what coaches are for, but his half-time switch to a 4-4-2, bringing on Roberto Firmino in place of Willian and shifting Gabriel Jesus to the right, did stem the Belgian tide. The problem was that by then they were already 2-0 down, having been eviscerated on the break by Kevin De Bruyne. Renato Augusto did pull one back, heading in Philippe Coutinho’s chip with 14 minutes remaining, but Belgium clung on. Kazan has seen some astonishing matches in this World Cup but this, perhaps, was the best as Tite, even-handed as ever, acknowledged. “It was a great game with two teams of incredible technical qualities,” he said. “Even with all the pain I feel now and the bitterness, I say that if you like football, you have to watch this game and you will have pleasure if you are not emotionally involved. Triangulations, transitions, saves, what a beautiful game!”.
Roberto Martínez may have been almost derided by the end of his time in the Premier League but he deserves enormous credit for Belgium’s victory. His approach was bold, startlingly so, setting out a team that looked like the sort of lineup one would use to chase a game if a goal down with half an hour to go – as, of course they had been against Japan in the last round. Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli, heroes of that comeback, were included and the system was a surprising one: a 4-3-3 with De Bruyne deployed as a false nine and Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard rampaging down the flanks. Both the players Martínez brought in were involved in Belgium’s opener, as was the deployment of De Bruyne. Dropping deep, he sliced open the defence with a through-ball to Fellaini whose scuffed shot yielded a corner. Chadli delivered to the near post and, as Gabriel Jesus and Fernandinho jumped together, the ball deflected in off the midfielder’s right arm.
What was really striking, though, was how dangerous Belgium were on the break. They rode their luck to an extent. Thiago Silva bundled an early corner against a post and Paulinho missed his kick when well-placed. Thibaut Courtois made a number of fine saves and bodies were put on the line again and again. But that was always likely to be the case. This, after all, is a Brazil side that had won 20 of their 25 games under Tite and were averaging more than two goals a game. Belgium were always going to have to endure and survive. But they also cut through Brazil over and over again.
De Bruyne ran the game, Brazil seemingly unable to decide who should pick him up. Hazard and Lukaku, pulling wide, regularly had space to run into. After a Fernandinho error, it was Lukaku who was the architect of the second goal, carrying the ball forward from his own half, beating Fernandinho and Paulinho and then laying the ball right to De Bruyne. A step inside, a glance up to measure the strike and the ball was flashing beyond Alisson’s right hand into the bottom corner: a brilliant goal and the first time Brazil had conceded two in a game under Tite.
Neymar, after all the criticism of his histrionics, was relatively well-behaved but his involvement was so fitful that Thomas Meunier was emboldened to make attacking sallies down the Belgium right. There was even, slightly bizarrely, an incident in the second half when he tangled with Fellaini and fell in the box, then seemed to discourage the Serbian referee, Milorad Mazic, from checking VAR.
Marcelo, Coutinho and Neymar had always looked an adventurous left side for Brazil; here, it was overwhelmed by the Belgian right of Meunier, Fellaini and Lukaku. It was not the collapse of four years ago, or anything like it, but it was, again, a Brazil side unable to handle an opponent adept on the counter.
Neymar flickered. Firmino slowly imposed himself. A Jesus dive, a Douglas Costa run, the surges of the substitute Augusto could not save them. Courtois made a brilliant tip-over from Neymar in the final minute of injury time. Belgium were exhausted, barely able to carry the ball into the Brazil half on the counter, but they held out and Brazil, like Argentina and Germany before them, succumbed in Kazan, the graveyard of the greats.
Source : The Guardian