It was hard not to feel a great deal of sympathy for Japan on Monday evening after they saw their World Cup dreams fall apart in such cruel, late fashion. But then the prospect of a Brazil v Belgium quarter final took hold and sympathy changed to one of widespread anticipation.
How could it not heighten the senses, this clash of teams who promise so much yet always skirt so close to implosion? Between them the Samba kings of South America and Europe’s Golden Generation boast so many of the superstars at this summer’s World Cup yet both have encountered struggle as much as they have soared on occasion and this is very odd when the numbers come into play.
Take Roberto Martinez’s side who are unbeaten in 23 games and are one of only two teams in Russia to have won all four of their games to this point. Impressive, no? Except there is a perfectly valid reason why 888Sport have them down as relatively distant outsiders to emerge victorious in Kazan on Friday evening and it’s not simply because their Neymar-inspired opponents have a propensity to be brilliant. Belgium are a collection of very good players – sprinkled with two outstanding players – who play in a system that compromises several of them. And that has shown so far at least from beneath the surface.
As for Brazil we only need look back to half past four on June 22nd to acknowledge their limitations. Then their second group game against Costa Rica was closing to a goalless stalemate and had Coutinho and Neymar not put the game to bed in injury time Group E could have had a significantly different complexion. Brazil would have been mired in ‘crisis’ and, as we have witnessed many times before, this is a coterie of talent who don’t exactly thrive under pressure.
A comfortable 2-0 win over Mexico has assuaged most of the doubts while the instrumental performances of Coutinho have proven to be a healthy boon. It would however be foolish to believe that all is now okay and that Brazil are on track to reach their eighth World Cup final. Belgium are a technically excellent side blessed with elite creativity and a clinical finish and it could be said in this regard they are similar to the Germans from four years ago. Anyone remember how that panned out?