World Cup Quarterfinal: Is there a better matchup in this round than Brazil v Belgium?
Beautifully flawed in their own ways, Brazil and Belgium meet in the quarter-finals, providing the tie of the round. A glittering array of stars have threatened to sparkle, but have only twinkled thus far - will this encounter present an explosion of quality, much like France vs Argentina?
Both Brazil and Belgium arrive into the last eight having survived scares against Mexico and Japan respectively. In a game that was characterised by flamboyant dives, Tite's Brazil finally managed to sink the buoyant Mexicans with a late, and decisive, goal from Bobby Firmino - up until that point, Selcao's slim 1-0 lead had looked as fragile as Neymar's right ankle. Belgium decided to go one step further, giving themselves a Maraoune Fellaini-sized mountain to climb as they went 2-0 down to an impressive Japanese side. Nacer Chadli and Fellaini! These were the incredulous and mocking cries as Robert Martinez turned to two unlikely heroes for salvation. One typical Fellaini header and a blistering counter-attack in the dying seconds of the game, finished off by Chadli, later and it seems Martinez is a tactical genius. Well, that may be stretching it.
Brazil and Belgium's only previous competitive meeting was in 2002 when the collective magic of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho saw off The Red Devils 2-0. Anecdotally, the attendance for the game was 40,440 and if the symmetry in that number doesn't please you, stop reading.
Brazil will be without midfield enforcer Casemiro as he, predictably, picked up a yellow card against Mexico to make it two for the tournament. Undoubtedly, the Real Madrid man will be a huge loss, but Tite has a reliable replacement in Manchester City's Fernandinho. The only slight injury concern for Brazil heading into the clash will be Neymar - with doctors concerned that his incessant rolling around may have caused a back spasm. Seriously though, Brazil's injury list still includes Danilo, Marcelo and Douglas Costa, but Costa was seen immersed in full training this week and could be involved from the bench.
Expect Brazil to line up in the same 4-3-3 formation they've utilised throughout the tournament; there may, however, be a change to the front three, with Firmino's impact from the bench causing Tite to rethink his loyalty to Gabriel Jesus, who has been ineffective so far. Willian and Firmino's industry without possession may be a key determiner in the game, with their harrying style likely to prompt mistakes from Belgium's back-line.
One stat to impress your mates during the game:
Neymar has scored six World Cup goals in just 38 shots; it took Lionel Messi 67 and Cristiano Ronaldo 74 attempts.
When asked about whether he may be reconsidering his tactics in the aftermath of Belgium's breathless come-back against Japan, Martínez responded that now is “not a day to speak about systems”. Yet he must, privately, have harboured a doubt about the effectiveness of the 3-5-2 formation he has employed so far; not least because it seems to have shackled Kevin De Bruyne, who has adopted a deeper role in midfield. With no fresh injury concern - Vincent Kompany emerged from the game unscathed after being a doubt prior to the match - Martinez's only worry will be the one that has plagued him and his predecessor, Marc Wilmots. How to unleash the enterprising potential of his hugely creative forward players?
The ex-Everton manager must consider whether to gamble with a new system or to keep the one he has experimented with through qualification, which has seen Yannick Carrasco - predominantly a left-winger - deployed at left wing back. One option would be to match Brazil and line up in a 4-3-3 and allow De Bruyne the same creative liberty Phillipe Coutinho is afforded in Brazil's three-man midfield. Martinez has rarely exuded tactical brilliance and that he is juggling with a major change before a historic quarter-final is no shock.
One stat to impress your mates:
Belgium's comeback ended a 52-year run and they became the first team to overhaul a two-goal deficit a World Cup knockout match within 90 minutes since 1966.
Brazil should win this one. Under Tite, they have a superior tactical intelligence and though Belgium boasts the awesome creative potential of Eden Hazard, De Bruyne and the deadly finishing of Romelu Lukaku, Thiago Silva and co. have the defensive diligence to cause a shut-out.
It'd be unfair to say Coutinho lives in Neymar's shadow, but his brilliance has been concealed by the Neymar show. Yet this has a 'coming-of-age' feel to it for the FC Barcelona man, and don't be surprised if he cuts inside and curls one past the hapless arms of Thibaut Courtois.
Prediction: 2-0 Brazil