Number 15: “Nacer Chadli fires Belgium to the World Cup quarter-finals.”
Match: Belgium 3 – 2 Japan | Date: 2nd July 2018 | Competition: World Cup Round of 16
In my opinion, there’s nothing greater in football than a comeback story. The hunger from the players, the desperation from the fans, and the idea of clinging on to hope always produces a memorable spectacle.
On a warm Monday night in Rostov, Belgium completed their own comeback story for the ages thanks to one final counter-attack and one particular strike from the then 28-year-old Nacer Chadli.
The 54th fixture of the 2018 World Cup was contested between Belgium and Japan in a thrilling encounter. I don’t think anyone could have predicted how this game turned out.
Heading into the match, Belgium were the heavy favourites against Japan. The Red Devils wowed spectators with their dominant performances in the group stages versus Panama and Tunisia while they were also the better team in their victory over England. Meanwhile, Japan looked promising at times in their group stage fixtures, especially in their victory over Colombia. But, they qualified for the last-16 over Senegal because of FIFA’s fair play tiebreaker rather than their actual performances.
However, despite their underdog status, Japan didn’t perform that way. For a majority of the game, they exploited areas in Roberto Martinez’s side and initially, it worked out well for them. With Belgium fielded in a 3-4-3 formation, Japan occupied much of the space in the middle and retained possession well.
Overall, the first half was a rather even and exciting affair. While Belgium was arguably the better of the two sides, the game remained goalless with both teams having some promising opportunities at goal. Romelu Lukaku and Vincent Kompany nearly scored early on for the Red Devils while Takashi Inui and Yuya Osako came close for Belgium.
But, everything changed in the second half.
Japan was clearly the better side after the interval and they had an instant impact thanks to a great goal from Genki Haraguchi. The Samurai Blue transitioned well from their own box to a counter-attack that Belgium struggled to deal with. Gaku Shibasaki’s pass cut through Belgium’s backline superbly and Haraguchi did well to finish it.
Although the Red Devils came close to an equaliser a minute later after Eden Hazard’s strike hit the post, it was Japan that found the net again. In the 53rd minute, Shinji Kagawa laid the ball off to Inui and his strike from 25-yards out gave Japan a deserved 2-0 lead. Everything about his strike was perfect, I think many goalkeepers would have struggled to keep his shot out.
With twenty-five minutes left to play in the game, Belgium manager Roberto Martinez opted for a double substitution and tactical change that completely changed the game. Poor performers Yannick Carrasco and Dries Mertens were brought off while Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli were brought on. Minutes later, his changes were already having an impact as Jan Vertonghen scored a vital goal for the Red Devils.
His goal gave Belgium that desire to fight for an equaliser but Japan stuck to their gameplan. Just like Japan had done earlier, Martinez’s side was quick to have an instant impact too as Hazard’s cross was headed home by the substitute Fellaini. The midfielder’s equaliser completely changed the complexion of the game for his nation.
Then there was that final goal. In the final minute of the game, Japan had won a corner and opted to grab the winner as opposed to run down the clock and play an extra thirty minutes of football. But, their plan failed miserably. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois caught the ball, quickly let Kevin de Bruyne loose, and eventually, the ball was passed to the feet of Chadli and the rest was history. Belgium had done it.
The Red Devil’s counter-attack was sensational. Japan should’ve done a lot better to track de Bruyne’s run since the midfielder had acres of space to play in Thomas Meunier at the right time. Also, Lukaku’s movement was integral in this play since he dragged his marker away and was also aware of an unmarked Chadli behind him when the ball was brought across.
Despite Japan’s best efforts, it just wasn’t meant to be on this day. Their performance for a majority of the game was spectacular and it’s a shame they were unable to reach the quarter-finals. With that being said, Belgium’s dedication on the night was exceptional and their win is a game of football I’ll never forget.
My Overall Thoughts:
As I mentioned in the intro, I love watching comebacks unravel in football. They are the type of matches that always consists of exciting football, high energy, and of course memorable moments.
Off the top of my head, Liverpool’s sensational 4-0 win against Barcelona in the Champions League and Arsenal’s bizarre 7-5 victory over Reading are two of my favourite comeback stories in recent times and Belgium’s triumph in Rostov is another match that would make my list.
Also, while I’ve watched many of these games unravel at club level, I’ve never really watched one take place on a big international stage like the World Cup which makes this match stand out more to me.
Considering the fact that they conceded two goals in quick succession, I found it both interesting and quite motivational that Belgium remained determined throughout the game to get a result. In a lot of cases, players would typically give up completely on grabbing a result but I never really saw this from Belgium, especially after Jan Vertonghen scored his goal.
Elsewhere, there’s just something about last-minute goals that I simply adore. I don’t think there’s anything better than watching a game completely change in a moment because a player scored at the very end of a match. I could spend hours watching different last-minute goals take place and Chadli’s winner versus Japan is unsurprisingly a goal I’ve watched many times too.
Overall, this game was fantastic to watch and it’s moments like Chadli’s goal that made me fall in love with this World Cup.
As part of this series, I also wanted to learn about different thoughts and feelings that other fans had to this game. While I’ve previously discussed my love for this fixture and why it was included in my “Matches of the Decade” series, I also think it’s beneficial to learn and hear the stories from people that have a deeper connection to the game in question.
With that being said, I was fortunate enough to talk to two Belgium fan’s about their experiences with this game and this is what they had to say:
Armin Ajradini – Chelsea fan living in Belgium.
“I was pretty scared in all honesty. Even though we have an amazing team, we were facing a side with an incredible fighting spirit. That match was very important to them, if they had won, they would have reached the quarter-finals for the first time in their history, I knew they would give it their all.”
“I was pretty excited in the first half since we performed really well. We just lacked finishing, it felt like the ball refused to go in! But, as long as we created chances, I thought we would turn out fine.”
“However, the second half was honestly a rollercoaster of emotions, everything just happened in such a short time. At first, I was filled with disappointment and disbelief. My least favourite moment was Japan’s second goal. The goal itself was an absolute screamer, and unfortunately for us, nobody would have been able to save that perfect shot. At that moment, I was just incredibly sad. The whole country was just so excited for us to reach far in the tournament and there it was, the moment where we realised that it could just end.”
“Towards the end, I was filled with happiness and pride. My favourite moment was definitely our last goal. It was the best counter-attack I have ever seen in my life. Japan had the advantage since they had a corner kick but, fortunately for us, Courtois caught it quickly and immediately threw the ball to De Bruyne. He’s one of our key players during our counter-attacks. Also, Lukaku was the most important player during that attack. His positioning was absolutely flawless, and his dummy to fool the defenders was absolutely genius, it just shows Lukaku’s ability and versatility as a striker.”
“And then, of course, Chadli’s finish. I can’t express how much joy I felt at that moment. It showed why I was so proud of my team. Never give up, fight till the end, and you will achieve your goals.”
Rob Francis – Belgium fan that watched the game live at the Rostov Arena.
“The Japan game was without doubt one of the highlights of the World Cup for me, even though we all thought we would win easily. We thought we would play Senegal or Colombia in the second round so Japan, in comparison, seemed pretty easy.”
“I can’t remember anything about the first half but Japan raced into a 2-0 lead after halftime. In the Belgian end, discussions started about how we would get home after the game! Flights were identified during play because people had no wish to stick around in Russia if Japan won. I was slightly different in that I had arranged to go to Kazan for the quarter-final.”
“We already knew Brazil was lying in wait, but now that we were losing, with less than a half to go, was soul-destroying. Then, from out of nowhere, Belgium got a goal back. Everyone woke up and then we scored a second, a goal I have no real recollection of, but still, it was a relief.”
[Regarding the winner] “My recollection is of a ball being passed across the Japanese penalty area. We see Lukaku but we also see Chadli in acres of space. I think I yelled “leave it” or “don’t touch it”. Of course, Romelu deliberately lets it run under his foot, and Chadli slides it in. The whole thing happens metres in front of us, as we were behind that goal. The crowd goes wild, beer flies everywhere, strangers hug, I see people crying, with relief, joy. We are playing Brazil in Kazan. And I have a ticket.”