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06th Jul 2018

World Cup Comments: Belgium’s win over Brazil was defined by two players

Robert Redmond

Brazil are out of the World Cup

The favourites to win the tournament were beaten 2-1 by Belgium on Friday night in Kazan. The South Americans fell behind after 13-minutes when Fernandinho inadvertently turned the ball into his own net. Belgium then scored a wonderful goal on the break.

Neymar’s corner was cleared by Marouane Fellaini, Romelu Lukaku dribbled by several Brazilians and Kevin De Bruyne then unleashed an unstoppable shot from the edge of the penalty area.

Renato Augusto reduced the deficit and Brazil pushed hard for an equaliser in the second-half, but Belgium held on to set-up a semi-final against France. The result can be defined by two players. Fellaini played for the team and was excellent. The Manchester United midfielder worked tirelessly and was a constant pain for his opponents, putting out fires and providing a solid defensive shield.

On the other side, selfish Neymar was ineffectual. The Paris Saint-Germain forward wasn’t the worst of Brazil’s performers in the quarter-final, but he offered very little to his side and appeared to be off the pace. He was on the edge of the game. When he came into possession, he tended to run down blind alleys or at opponents hoping for contact. When he didn’t get the contact he wanted, he dived. Luckily, the referee wasn’t conned by Neymar’s nonsense.

The 26-year-old came into the tournament after missing months of action following surgery on a broken foot. He lacked spark against Switzerland and Costa Rica, but looked to be coming back to his best with his displays against Serbia and Mexico. Many expected him to fire Brazil to glory in Russia, but he’s now on his way home.

It’s difficult to feel any sympathy for Neymar. In fact, if you’re a neutral it’s difficult not to crack a wry smile. He’s a brilliant footballer, but an unlikeable figure. He is selfish in possession, which clouds his decision making and sometimes reduces the match to a contest between Neymar and his direct opponent or Neymar versus the referee if he’s not getting his own way. Unfortunately, there appears to be no-one who can make him fall in-line.

Fellaini is the antithesis of Neymar. He doesn’t possess a fraction of his talent, but he’s the ultimate team player and conveyed on Friday night why managers rate him so highly, even if fans don’t always appreciate him. Neymar has the talent, but it would count for a lot more if he possessed some of Fellaini’s attitude.

At the tournament in Russia, Neymar insulted his teammates, referees and he has tried repeatedly tried to disrespect his opponents. His own narrative and personal goals were elevated above all others and he was indulged by his teammates and the Brazil coaches. It was Brazil featuring Neymar, rather than the Brazilian national team. They got what they deserved for indulging him, and were beaten by a team in the truest sense of the word.

Belgium worked extremely hard, with some players looking noticeably tired after an hour of the game, and there was a structure to their approach. Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld were solid at the back.

Axel Witsel, alongside Fellaini, was disciplined in midfield, protecting the defence and chipping in with a series of interceptions, blocks and timely tackles.

Thomas Meunier and Nacer Chadli covered a lot of ground on the wings and the front three of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard were electric, especially in the first-half.

Belgium faded physically in the final 30-minutes and had to hang on, but they deserved this victory. Despite suggestions that there was disharmony in the squad, Belgium were finally a sum of their parts, they played as a team and will never have a better opportunity to win the World Cup after beating the favourites.

Hazard and De Bruyne were their best players on the night, but Fellaini’s hard work got them through some tough spells in the game. Unlike Neymar, Fellaini is a team player. Unlike Fellaini, Neymar is on his way home. The quarter-final was a timely example that talent only counts for so much, particularly in this tournament. Brazil appeared to be waiting for a Neymar miracle that never came and they ultimately got what they deserved for indulging a brilliant, but flawed star.