Quarterfinal Preview: Brazil vs. Belgium
Brazil: Brazil came into this Cup with one thing on their minds, avenging the famous 7-1 loss the suffered to Germany on home soil in 2014. Since that horrible day in the Seleção's history, Neymar and Brazil have focused on building a team that could win the cup in 2018.
Their first group stage game against Switzerland proved to be tough one. After Barcelona's Philippe Countinho struck a beautiful curler passed Switzerland's and Borussia Monchengladbach's Yann Sommer. A header from Hoffenheim's Steven Zuber brought the Swiss level. Throughout the game, the Swiss continued to foul Neymar in an attempt to hinder his creativity. Chances came few and far between for Brazil in a game that saw Neymar suffer 10 fouls, the second most by a single player in World Cup history. This draw showed the world that this talented Brazil team had it's flaws.
Costa Rica looked to pick up where the Swiss left off, stifling Brazil with physical, compact play. They hacked Neymar once again, and with Neymar jarring at the ref over potential dives, everything seemed to be going the Costa Ricans' way. However a brilliant combination between Coutinho and Manchester City striker Gabi Jesus led to a stoppage time winner for Brazil. Then, Juve's Douglas Costa played an unselfish ball to Neymar who slotted the ball into an empty net for his first goal of the tournament. Neymar then did something to prove the Brazil of old was back. From the corner flag, he rainbow flicked a ball over a Costa Rican defender and stunned the world. This piece of magic brought back memories of the old Brazilian flare with Ronaldinho.
They continued this form with 2-0 wins over Serbia in the group stage, and Mexico in the Round of 16. These games saw PSG's Thiago Silva, Barcelona's Paulinho, and Liverpool's Roberto Firmino all get on the 2018 World Cup score sheet. The variety of scorers exemplifies Brazil's new found ability to succeed in ways that don't completely rely on Neymar.
In the absence of the injured right back, Dani Alves of PSG, and now the injured left back, Marcelo of Real Madrid, many were concerned with how Brazil would compensate. However, Fagner of Corinthians in Brazil Seria A and Felipe Luis of Athletico Madrid slotted in to right and left back with great efficiency. Brazil haven't lost a step.
Their biggest change from 2014 is their midfield. The addition of Real Madrid's Casemiro in the defensive midfield has helped Brazil's passing and defensive production greatly. And, the addition of Coutinho has provided a creative threat on the Brazilian attack other than Neymar. In fact Coutinho is now the leading scorer on the Brazil squad that looks to continue it's World Cup success against Belgium.
Belgium: In the golden era of football in Belgium, the national side look at the 2018 World Cup as their opportunity to win a trophy and show the world their talent. Behind the creative presence of Chelsea's Eden Hazard and Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne, and the goal scoring prowess of Manchester United's Romelu Lukaku, Belgium look to make a deep run in the World Cup.
They cruised through the group stage with a 3-0 win over World Cup debutants Panama, a 5-2 win over a solid Tunisian side, and a 1-0 win against a shadow England side in a match where both teams rested their starting 11. Belgium's industrious offense was magnified, but their defense looked shaky against a Tunisian side that pounced on the opportunities that were given to them by Belgium. Nonetheless, Belgium looked in cruise control heading into the Round of 16, having never really been challenged up to that point.
In their first knockout stage game, Belgium faced Japan, the first team to advance passed the group stage via FIFA Fair Play. In other words, they were shown less cards than Senegal, so they advanced at the expense of the African side, despite being equal on points, goal differential, and goals for. With this in mind, and the gap between the two sides in the FIFA rankings(Belgium is 3rd while Japan is 61st), this looked to be an easy win for Belgium.
However, from the start, Japan showed that this game would be as entertaining as the rest of the Round of 16 matches. Japan and Belgium exchanged possession back and forth, with Belgium pressuring but lacking the finishing touch. Then, in the second half, Japan stunned Belgium with 2 goals in 4 minutes. With creative players such as Borussia Dortmund's Shinji Kagawa and Real Betis' Takahashi Inui, Japan looked dangerous on every attack. Belgium looked stifled offensively. It took subs Nacer Chadli of West Brom and Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini to really change the game. After Tottenham's Jan Vertonghen pulled one back with an attempted headed pass that found the back of the net, Fellaini found the back of the net 5 minutes later off an Eden Hazard cross.
Belgium finally used their height and size advantage to level the game. And, a 94th minute goal from fellow sub Chadli off a counter attack sealed the come back win for Belgium whos staved off a surprise early exit. The Belgium team did well to advance to the quarters, but will need a much better performance defensively to compete with Brazil, the second ranked team in the world.
Prediction: The Belgian keys to the game are simple. The must engage De Bruyne and Hazard in the attack, and use the size and strength of Lukaku to over power the undersized Thiago Silva and score.
They must also kept the game in the midfield and not get stretched. The Belgian wide backs Vertonghen and Thomas Meunier of PSG have poor 1 on 1 defending ability. Meaning, Neymar, Willian, Coutinho, and Jesus will have a field day on them if they are allowed the freedom to take them on early and often. Meunier recently admitted that they don't know how to stop Neymar, so it is important for Belgium to keep possession when on the ball, and stay compact defensively to provide cover.
On the Brazilian side, they will favor a free flowing game. The more stretched the match is, the more Brazil get to exercise their creative in passing and dribbling to break through the slow and poor Belgian defense. Look for Coutinho to try and find Willian, Neymar, or Jesus who will look to run at defenders or interchange with each other every chance they get. Expect Paulinho and Jesus to be heavily involved in the offense as well, making good runs, looking to get on the end of balls, and freeing up space for their wingers.
Defensively, Brazil's midfielders must hinder the runs and distribution of De Bruyne. Look for Casemiro to stick on him wherever he goes. Fagner and Luis will also have to hold their own against Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens of Napoli. This may require Willian and Jesus to drop back and provide cover for these backs, especially if Meunier pushes the right side which he frequently likes to do. This will allow the bigger Joao Miranda of Inter Milan to help Thiago Silva with the powerful Lukaku.
Ultimately, Brazil's quality should be too much for Belgium's defense to handle, and their defense should hold firm and play through Casemiro. Brazil will defeat Belgium in route to earning their sixth World Cup trophy.