For a moment, it looked to be the greatest game in Japanese soccer history. Up 2-0 against Belgium, Japan was looking at a first ever trip to the World Cup quarterfinals.
But Belgium unleashed its world-class quality and ripped off three straight goals, the last coming in the dying seconds of regulation, to crush Japan’s hopes on Monday in Rostov-on-Don.
In the fourth minute of added time, Belgium went on a 4-on-3 break, led by Thomas Meunier, who slid the ball across to Romelu Lukaku, who was frustrated all game. Instead of shooting, Lukaku faked and let the ball go clear to Nacer Chadli, who punched in the winning goal and set off a wild celebration in the stadium and across Belgium.
The victory avoided a demoralizing defeat for Belgium’s so-called Golden Generation of players that has long promised a great performance at a major championship and now seems poised to deliver it, at least if it can get past mighty Brazil in the quarterfinal on Friday.
Belgium dominated the first half, but was frustrated time and again by Japan’s pesky defence, which always seemed to be in the right place to clear a pass or block a shot.
But it was Japan that improbably jumped on the scoreboard three minutes into the second half. Jan Vertonghen badly missed a back pass, giving Genki Haraguchi a chance through on goal. He finished clinically, and Japan was in front.
While the first goal came after an error, the second, four minutes later, was pure class. Japan passed the ball around with some skill, and it eventually found Takashi Inui at the top of the box. It didn’t look like a golden chance, but he turned and rifled it into the net.
For 17 minutes, fans were contemplating a dramatic upset. But that’s when the fightback began. Vertonghen was far along the end line, but somehow headed it in from an impossible angle and distance.
Five minutes later, Belgium was on level terms. Substitute Marouane Felliani leaped the highest for Eden Hazard’s inch-perfect cross and headed it home.
To Japan’s credit, it did not back off and kept looking for a goal. But it was favored Belgium who finished off the game 94 minutes in. It was a comeback to remember for Belgium and a heartbreaking end to Japan’s nearly-famous day.
Meanwhile, Brazil sealed the Mexico’s doom after dumping two unreplied goals in the goal mouth of its national team in the ongoing World Cup competition in Russia.
By beating Mexico at the Samara Arena in Samara on Monday, Brazil have qualified for the World Cup quarter-finals.
Second-half goals from Neymar and Roberto Firmino have earned Brazil a 2-0 victory over Mexico in Monday’s World Cup last-16 tie in Samara.
After a goalless first half, Neymar soon gave Brazil the lead before substitute Firmino put the game out of Mexico’s reach during the closing stages.
-New York Times