Belgian belief continues to grow
Belgium woke up Wednesday morning with a collective sense of "YES!" For the first time since 1986, the Red Devils reached the last eight in the World Cup, after beating the United States, 2-1. For head coach Marc Wilmots, it was fourth time lucky. Wilmots scored five goals for Belgium over three tournaments in 1994, 1998 and 2002, but never made it to the quarterfinals. Belgium lost highly contentious games in 1994 and 2002 and didn't get past the group stage in 1998.
But it isn't just the win that makes Belgium buzz. Possibly even more important was the way in which it was achieved. In a group phase full of spectacular games and goals, Belgium stood out like a sore thumb and were rightly lambasted for their cautious approach.
But on Tuesday the Red Devils finally reminded the world why exactly, at the start of this World Cup, they were seen as important outsiders to win the whole thing. Wilmots got his tactics straight and Belgium played the positive, flowing football they were so often praised for in the past two years.
The win meant that, for the first time in World Cup history, all the group winners made it into the last eight. Many of them had a tough time beating their second-round opponents. Argentina disappointed again and left it very late to score before escaping as Switzerland hit the post. France should have been down to 10 or even nine in their game against Nigeria. The Netherlands needed a cheap penalty and both Brazil and Costa Rica were taken all the way to a shootout. Only Colombia were comfortable in their win over a deflated Uruguay.
Extra time and the 2-1 scoreline suggest this was another tight game, but it could easily have been 4-0 after 90 minutes. In fact, had it not been for Tim Howard, deservedly chosen as FIFA's man of the match, Belgium could have won by any scoreline. Howard was monumental in goal, making a staggering 16 saves.
A remarkable record, but of course it means Belgium created an amazing amount of opportunities. They had 39 shots on goal, 27 on target. The U.S. managed 14 and nine, and many of those came in the closing minutes, when they threw everything at Belgium in a desperate attempt to level the game after Julian Green's fortunate goal to halve the margin.
Wilmots finally put out his best team, with everyone in his best position. From the start, Belgium pinned the U.S. back. Eden Hazard on the left and Dries Mertens on the right ran riot, and as the U.S. defenders tried to stop them, they left room for Kevin De Bruyne to operate in. As early as the second minute, he released Divock Origi, but Howard was on hand with the first of his many interventions.
It was a relief to see them play. What exactly the problem was in the group phase remains unclear. Some point at the opponents, who didn't allow Belgium room to play. Others say Wilmots has been too cautious with his tactics. Then there are those who think the problem was the players: overwhelmed by the occasion, not enough experience, too much pressure, too young... Take your pick.
Wilmots certainly has been cautious. But then in the group phase, the only thing that matters is making it out, which Belgium did with maximum points. And where his starting line-up has at times failed to deliver the goods, his astute substitutions have made a massive impact.
But Belgium promised they would play a different brand of football in the knockout phases. And they delivered. The U.S. were never really in the game as Belgium kept pounding Howard's goal. There was hardly a chance for a break. Never before did a Belgian team so utterly dominate their opponent. This infostrada graphic illustrates how strong and relentless Belgium were.
But Howard stood firm until again, a substitute made the difference. Romelu Lukaku went from zero to hero in just 15 minutes after coming on for Origi. Soon after the start of extra time, he ripped through the American defence before feeding the ball to De Bruyne, who finally managed to beat Howard with a low, angular drive.
Just before the end of the first half of extra time, he went one better. Picking up the ball around the halfway line, he laid off to De Bruyne, who found himself in acres of space and started for the American goal. Lukaku made a perfect run, got the ball back from De Bruyne and emphatically finished in the top corner with his favoured left foot.
There were some anxious moments after Green clawed a lucky goal back after uncharacteristic sloppy defending by Belgium, but the Red Devils saw out the game to a deserved win. And more than any other team, they impressed. In FIFA's team of the second round, for which millions of fans worldwide voted, Belgium boast three players (Jan Vertonghen, De Bruyne and Lukaku), more than any other country.
If Belgium had managed to make the world nod off, they have now made sure everybody is wide awake. Argentina are up next, and they will not expect an easy ride against this resurrected Belgium side.
Wim Van Walle has contributed to ESPNFC since 2010. Back in 1980, his passion for football was decided by the teams of the day. And apparently it stuck. Three decades later, Van Walle is still as passionate about Belgium's Red Devils and Nottingham Forest.