Belgium take one step closer to the desired destination: The World Cup final. A 2-1 scoreline that flattered their South-American opponents propelled Roberto Martinez’s side into the semi-final against a rampant France team. With so few teams remaining, attention to detail becomes ever more prominent, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that Roberto Martinez is doing a fine job at the helm of a very promising Belgium side.
The ex-Everton manager was likely to come under some criticism akin to that at his former club, after his side went down 2-0 unexpectedly to Japan in the round of sixteen. However, Belgium did not lose. Roberto Martinez made two substitutes and after Jan Vertonghen’s looping header, both Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli scored to put Belgium through in under twenty minutes. Many a fan could be forgiven for suppressing a sigh when the fragile West Brom player and the impressively ungraceful Manchester United substitute entered the fray.
However, a towering header and a smooth finish in the final seconds of the game from the two put a cherry finish in what was seemingly a tactical masterstroke by Roberto Martinez. Reminiscent of England’s last-minute winner against Tunisia, but perhaps with less chanting of ‘football’s coming home’, Belgium showed the tenacity and desire to find a way to victory. Indeed, Gareth Southgate is not the only manager who deserves plaudits for his construction of a team.
Kevin De Bruyne
After Japan, Belgium faced perhaps the hardest quarter-final tie – Brazil. Like Liverpool against Manchester City in the Champions League, this team looked precisely equipped to beat their opponent.
Whilst keeping the same shape, Martinez managed to muddy the centre of the park. The pairing of Kevin De-Bruyne and Axel Witsel was effective, but certainly porous given neither of them is naturally a defensive midfielder. Using the latter paired with Fellaini was used to absolute effect. The Manchester United man won seven aerial duels, made four blocks, three clearances and three successful tackles in the game.
Not only was Neymar effectively crowded out of the game, but secret weapon Phillipe Coutinho was simply unable to unleash any of his attempted shots from outside the box. This was all achieved without the loss of Kevin De-Bruyne’s services.
The Manchester City star played at the top of a front three, with Romelu Lukaku occupying the role of a wide number nine. While the usual centre-forward looked simply unplayable, rampaging down the right flank, De-Bruyne was allowed space and time to deliver his genius – and did. A fantastic low drive from outside the box beat Chelsea target Alisson Becker at the far post, after a messy Fernandinho own goal started the proceedings.
Though Brazil failed to take a number of key chances, it was Roberto Martinez who masterminded the tactical display which allowed the best players to thrive, including Eden Hazard – who completed 10 dribbles on his mission to the semi-final.
Belgium’s manager simply knew how to beat this team. A similar coalescence of team continuity and tactical pragmatism may give Belgium a weapon that might just take them to eternal glory.
While England and France continue to grab the headlines, football fans may be forgiven for overlooking Belgium’s once disappointing ‘golden generation’. However, with dogged comebacks in the face of defeat, tactical adaptability used to deadly effect, and a record number of points in qualification, the undefeated team of superstars are making waves at this World Cup.
Building a gradual feeling of momentum, Belgium have taken a team that should be making the final four to a team that have made the final four. 90 minutes separate them from a World Cup final against either England or Croatia, and would be favourites to win against either. Who knows, in the near future we may see Eden Hazard finally finish podium in the Ballon D’or and new debutants as champions of the world.
Regardless, Roberto Martinez has certainly commanded praise for his efforts.