Belgium complete remarkable rally from 2-0 down to defeat Japan
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia -- Three points from a stunning last-16 encounter as Belgium defeated Japan 3-2 with virtually the last kick of the game.
1. How did Belgium manage that?
Someone is scripting this World Cup. They must be. There's no other rational explanation for it. We got another astonishing game Monday night when Belgium, who were 2-0 down to Japan after 10 minutes of the second half, stole a victory with the very last kick of the game.
Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui had put Japan comfortably ahead and for a while, it looked as though another of the favourites would be embarrassed, slinking home in ignominy as the chaos of this tournament continued. But Belgium came back, initially through Jan Vertonghen's looping header and then via substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli -- the latter slotting home with literally 8 seconds remaining on the clock -- to move into the quarterfinals. It was truly extraordinary.
Belgium didn't start the match like they'd need such extreme measures. The most remarkable thing about the opening half-hour was that Japan survived with their clean sheet intact. Vincent Kompany, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard all went close and the pressure seemed suffocating. Occasionally they came up for air, with Belgium looking curiously panicked when Japan did attack, but it was all Japan could do to stay alive.
Still, they did almost take the lead in comical fashion when Thibaut Courtois let a weak shot from Inui slip through his legs, just saving it from crossing the line. And then, a few minutes into the second half, the spectre of those missed chances loomed large as Japan took the lead.
Inui broke from deep and tried to pick out Haraguchi with a low pass, which Vertonghen let run under his foot. The Tottenham defender compounded the error by shifting in the wrong direction when Haraguchi collected the ball, allowing the midfielder time to pick out the bottom corner of the net.
Hazard hit the post a minute later, but extraordinarily, Japan made it 2-0. Shinji Kagawa laid it off to Inui, who was given a little too much space on the edge of the area to shoot. That said, his finish was special, lashed into the bottom corner beyond Courtois' fingertips.
For a short time, Belgium looked panicked and bereft of ideas, but they were back in the game just after the hour mark. A curious corner was not cleared properly by the Japanese defence despite two attempts, and it fell at the back post to Vertonghen, who looped a header home.
Then, improbably, Belgium were level. For all their technique and intricate skill, it was force that yielded the equaliser as substitute Fellaini thumped a header into the net after a cross from the left. Just as extra time looked inevitable, Belgium swept up field after Courtois caught a Japan corner. His simple throw released Kevin De Bruyne into acres of space; the Man City star spread the ball wide right for Thomas Meunier, and Chadli forced home the low cross after Lukaku's clever dummy.
What a game. What a tournament.
2. Belgium dig deep and defy the critics
Belgium essentially cruised through qualifying to make it to Russia. They didn't lose a game, arriving at this World Cup with ease after not being tested by the likes of Gibraltar, Cyprus and Estonia. Even once they arrived at the tournament, no harsh opponents stood in their path: Tunisia and Panama were among the poorest teams at the World Cup and were defeated accordingly, while few conclusions can be drawn from the clash between theirs and England's second-string teams in the final group match.
They know they've been in a game now, though. There was a sense in the first half that Belgium thought what everyone else did: They were going to score sooner or later, it was only a matter of time. Yet they were quickly disabused of that notion by a Japan team that have been better than basically everyone thought they would be. Panic really did seem to set in after Japan's goals, only for it to be relieved at the very last.
The relief came from Belgium's most unlikely sources, too. Fellaini and Chadli looked like desperation substitutes, but hats off to Roberto Martinez. Perhaps he really does know what he's doing.
It should never have come to that for one of the pre-tournament top dogs, but at least Belgium can point to this as proof of their fortitude.
3. Inui dazzles again for Japan
This World Cup has seen plenty of outstanding individual performances. Harry Kane, Philippe Coutinho, Aleksandr Golovin, Christian Eriksen, Luka Modric and plenty more beside have seized on the spotlight. But perhaps the best low-key, standout individual has been Inui, Japan's key man in Rostov and the tournament as a whole.
"Inui has been performing beyond our expectations," Japan coach Akira Nishino said earlier in the tournament. "He has been excellent."
As if to underline the point, Nishino included the midfielder among the players he rested for their final group game: It was a gamble, but he insisted that in previous competitions, his players had run out of steam, and therefore he needed his best ones fresh for the latter stages. Inui promptly backed up his judgement with some gusto Monday night.
Real Betis will presumably be watching on with some satisfaction after snapping up the 30-year-old attacking midfield from Eibar on a free transfer before the World Cup. Had he been available, his excellence in Russia would almost certainly have seen the interest piqued for more glamourous clubs around the world.
The way he addresses the ball, applying little sharp chops followed by bursts of pace, actually isn't that dissimilar to Hazard. But while before the game journalists asked the Chelsea man if he could play at the same level as the eliminated Messi or Ronaldo, nobody was making the same comparisons about Inui.
Obviously they won't be now even after his fine showings, but it's not hyperbolic or sensationalist to suggest that he's been as useful and decisive to his team as those two superstars were to theirs.
Inui didn't deserve to be on the losing side. Not many Japanese players did. But such are the cruelties of football that one of these effervescent sides has to go home.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.