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Hartnett: Belgium-Japan Round Of 16 Match Served Up Unforgettable Drama

Sean Hartnett
July 02, 2018 - 6:35 pm
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By Sean Hartnett

The 2018 World Cup has served up a bevy of unpredictable matches and drama to be savored. On Monday, Japan caused a stir by jumping out to a 2-0 shock lead over heavily-favored Belgium in the Round of 16.

Eventually, Japan would concede three unanswered second half goals and lost 3-2 in the final minute due to their over-eagerness in attack. Instead of dialing it back a bit and employing stall tactics to kill off the clock, Samurai Blue continued to push forward.

It was brave, it was admirable – but it was reckless. All that stood between Japan and extra time was 21 minutes plus added time. Jan Vertonghen’s long-range header deceived Eiji Kawashima in the 69th minute. Towering midfielder Marouane Fellaini scored an equalizing header five minutes later. An 85th minute double-save by Eiji Kawashima kept Japan’s hopes of pushing the match to extra time alive.

Then, in a 10-second dash across 80 yards, Belgium grabbed a 94th-minute winner. The Belgians went end-to-end in a spectacular flash. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois started a quick counter attack by rolling the ball out to star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, who passed the ball out wide to advancing right back Thomas Meunier.

Key attacker Romelu Lukaku dragged his defender with him to create space for Meunier, then performed a brilliant dummy to allow Nacer Chadli’s winning strike. It was a thing of beauty and a wonderful team goal. Just like that, Japan’s improbable dream was over.

The third-ranked Belgians entered the tournament with a collection of world-class stars, including De Bruyne, Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany. Few expected 61st-ranked Japan to push Belgium so hard. Keep in mind, this is a Japan team that advanced to the Round of 16 through the virtue of the fair play tiebreaker, having collected two less yellow cards than Senegal in the group stage.

But Japan entertained and captured the hearts of neutral observers. From the first minute of Monday’s match, Japan put their foot dawn hard on the gas and did not let up. Win or lose, Japan was going to commit players forward and perform the high press.

That frantic pressing style disrupted the Belgians throughout the first half and led to the game’s opening goal in the 48th minute. Gaku Shibasaki’s long slide pass found Genki Haraguchi, who deftly paused to collect himself before slotting the ball past Courtois at the far post.

A 52nd-minute wonder strike by Takashi Inui stunned all inside Luzhniki Stadium and millions watching around the globe. For a moment, it looked like Japan was on course for a shocking upset.

It wasn’t to be for Samuari Blue, but their attacking flair and tremendous spirit earned them many admirers. Japan can leave Russia holding their heads high, having scored their highest goal tally (six) at a single World Cup tournament.

The drama, the unpredictability and the heartbreak -- this is why we watch the World Cup. This was a match that had everything and will go down in the World Cup annals as a classic.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.