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02nd Jul 2018

World Cup Comments: Belgium’s winner offers rare example of the sum of their parts

Even the great sides struggle to combine timeliness with footballing beauty, but Belgium did just that

Wayne Farry


You’re usually annoyed when it happens

You’re watching the game as a neutral and you’re enjoying it. The score is tied and you wouldn’t mind a winner but, as the clock moves closer to full-time, you start to think to yourself, “Maybe extra-time and penalties wouldn’t be the worst”.

This is true in all knockout competitions but specifically in the World Cup. This tournament is so fleeting, so beautiful, an amalgamation of everything we love and hate about football over the space of one month, that we just want it to go on, if only for a little bit longer. If only for another 30 minutes. Anything is better than a World Cup game being over, even the bad ones.

Belgium vs Japan on Monday night was not a bad one. It was a great one. It was a game which saw the Samurai Blue scare the living hell out of their more fancied opponents, a team which had comfortably beaten England’s B team with their own B- team.

This was Belgium’s A-Team though. It was not Dean Gaffney, Les Dennis, Barry from Eastenders and the fella from Rise of the Footsoldier, it was BA Barakus, Face, Hannibal and Murdock. And they were losing 2-0 to Japan.

They were threatened and seemed all set to be put on a plane against their will. But, like the A-Team tends to do, they pulled it out of the bag.

To begin this comeback was Jan Vertonghen, who ended a game of what appeared to be poor rugby resulting from a Belgium corner to loop a deep header over the keeper and into the goal. It was the sort of header that Jared Borgetti would’ve been proud of.

What followed was significantly less beautiful but just as effective. Eden Hazard slithered and squirmed past the Japanese full-back like some sort of human-eel hybrid and unleashed a swinging cross into the box. Waiting for it was the forehead and body of Marouane Fellaini, who thumped home the sort of header usually reserved for games in which Jose Mourinho has run out of ideas.

Belgium had equalised, but in truth, that looked to be that.

Both sides threatened from range and played some neat passing football, but fatigue was clear and all 22 men on the pitch seemed more intent on having a little sit, catching their breath and drinking some of the World Cup’s licensed beverages during the interval between full-time and extra-time.

In truth, so were we. We were sitting there, heart rates finally lowered, watching time count down, thinking that – if anything – a goal would spoil this one. We’ve come this far, why turn back now? We’ve got 30 more minutes if everyone just keeps it tight.

The thing about World Cup teams and, really, all teams is that playing an extra 30 minutes is an utter pain in the arse. It’s the overtime at work after which all you’ll earn is a cramp and a headache. They don’t want to do it. They want to play 90 minutes and win.

Is it selfish of them to not consider us howling fools at home? Perhaps. Is it understandable? Of course.

The great (or very good, at least) teams out there do it when it matters. Greece progressed to the Euro 2004 final with a last minute header at the end of the first half of extra-time, earning a silver goal win against an arguably better and indisputably devastated Czech Republic side.

Manchester United won the Champions League final in 1999 with two late, short range goals against Bayern Munich, leaving Sami Kuffour thumping the ground like he was trying to dig the hole to swallow him up.

Even the best sides though struggle to combine this timeliness with sheer and utter beauty – it’s usually one or the other, the desperation to win superseding the desire to entertain – but that’s what Belgium did as this game entered the final stages of injury time.

Is this Belgium team great? Lord no, but in the space of a few short seconds they did what even the greatest sides throughout time have often struggled to do, and illustrated exactly what they are capable of.

In the space of a few short seconds they showcased the very best attributes of their side.

Kevin De Bruyne strode out from deep, terrifying the daunted Japanese defenders into retreat.

Romelu Lukaku, a player unfairly labelled by fools as a battering ram, utilised his awareness of the pitch and his spatial intelligence to make a beautiful, sacrificial run.

Thomas Meunier battered up the wing, keeping pace the entire time, but never getting ahead, always remaining in the perfect position as Lukaku opened up the space ahead of him.

He squared it, while Lukaku – with his second contribution in this break neck and spectacular move, dummied the ball confidently.

Then, it rolled to Nacer Chadli, as Lukaku knew it would, who tucked it in perfectly. It was a worthy reward for a gut-busting run from deep.

And this, one of the most breathtakingly ruthless counter-attacking goals you’ll ever see, was a worthy winner of this game.

It was the sum of Belgium’s parts, in a way we’ve never seen before, and it was worth missing extra-time for.