It was another Russia 2018 classic, featuring a Belgium side who plundered two goals against their famous opposition twice in the first 32 minutes after which the men in the yellow shirts would spend the next hour in thrilling perpetual chase. Led by their little general Philippe Coutinho, and perhaps with a little longer at their disposal, it would have been Brazil in the semi-final against France in St Petersburg on Tuesday.
But instead the last South American side are out, beaten by the shrewdness of Kevin De Bruyne on the counter-attack and Marouane Fellaini and his fellow midfield sentry Axel Witsel, the two unmistakeable guardogs of this Belgium team. This was the golden generation of Belgium against a country where every generation is golden, and the great attacking talent of De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku prevailed.
Not as the dominant team in possession because Brazil were that, and not in terms of chances created in which the Brazilians also led, but it was in exploiting their opportunities in which Belgium prevailed. Afterwards Roberto Martinez pointed out that to beat Brazil, it is not enough to put your talent up against theirs and hope to win – even with the talent in his side. Rather, you have to have a plan.
This was a great night for Martinez and his assistant, Thierry Henry, whose plan carried Belgium over the line by the skin of their teeth. Fellaini in midfield with Witsel in front of a back three initially and Lukaku and Hazard wide, allowing De Bruyne to come through the middle. They left two up at all times, taking a risk on exploiting Brazil’s vulnerability in the wide positions and although Belgium’s first was a Fernandinho own goal their second, from De Bruyne, was an out-of-your-seat, counter-attacking classic.
There were no tears afterwards this time from the man who loves to be at the centre of attention, because he will have known that this time no-one would be buying it. Later De Bruyne would talk about the sacrifices he made for his team, “I don’t care where I play,” he said. “I need to contribute… I did my job and made sure the team was calm in difficult situations.”
The last two South American sides, Brazil and Uruguay, sent home from the competition on the same day and, as with the last three World Cups, 2018 will have a European champion. Brazil missed the suspended Casemiro and his replacement Fernandinho glanced in a silly near-post own-goal under no pressure other than the jump by another City man, his Brazil team-mate Gabriel Jesus, who failed to score in his fifth World Cup game.