Drama, underdogs giving valiant efforts, beautiful football on show – we may as well copy and paste this every day, as Russia 2018 continues to excite on the daily.
Day Eighteen saw two more knockout games, both of which featured heavyweights that were tipped to go far in Russia before a ball was kicked. But as we saw with Day Seventeen, and many days before that, being a heavyweight means nothing.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be for todays underdogs, but the heavyweights were certainly made to work for their results.
Welcome to Day Eighteen of Russia 18.
Brilliant Brazil breeze past Mexico to secure spot in last eight again
Tournament favourites Brazil booked their place in the quarter-finals for the seventh World Cup in a row with a routine win against Mexico.
Second half goals from Neymar and Roberto Firmino did the business for the five-time winners, whilst Mexican fans were left wondering what might have been after being eliminated at the round of sixteen stage yet again.
With a number of big names and past champions falling over the past week, it wouldn’t have been wrong to suggest that some Brazilians may have been a little more cautious than usual heading into this match against a Mexican side that had proved just how dangerous they can be during the group stage, despite their disappointing defeat to Sweden.
In a bid to shore up the midfield after that poor defensive display, coach Juan Carlos Osorio opted to go with 39-year-old Rafael Márquez in holding midfield, as the veteran, appearing in his fifth and final World Cup, started in what he hoped would not be his final game as a professional footballer after announcing his retirement earlier this year.
ITV commentator John Champion described the pre-match scenes in Samara as full of samba and sombreros, and he wasn’t wrong, as both sets of fans passionately sang their respective anthems to fuel the atmosphere for a hotly anticipated match-up.
And as play got underway, it was the Mexicans who started brightly, as Osorio’s side looked to trouble the Brazilians with their fast-paced attacking tempo which caused defending champions Germany so many problems in their opening game.
Hirving Lozano and Carlos Vela were the main threats on either flank, and the Mexicans’ best chance in the first half was created by the latter, who picked out midfielder Hector Herrera on the edge of the box.
The Porto man was in space and had the opportunity to hit a first-time effort, but was eventually crowded out by a panicking Brazilian defence after showing indecisiveness in the situation.
That was the wake up call for Tite’s men, and they stepped up the pace themselves afterwards.
Neymar was the first to test Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa. After the goalkeeper lofted a ball forward, full-back Filipe Luis won a header, which left his opposite number Edson Alvarez out of position.
The PSG star found himself in space down the left, but as 20-year-old Alvarez initially recovered, the £200m man sent him packing with some sensational skill to carve the chance, but his effort from a tight angle was saved well by Ochoa.
Striker Gabriel Jesus was next to test the man between the sticks. His quick feet in the area saw him dance around the Mexican defence, before firing a left-foot shot which Ochoa had to be alert to in order to keep out.
Neymar hit a free-kick high and wide from long-range, but besides that, Mexico were largely comfortable, and went into the break content with their efforts in the first 45 minutes.
But that satisfaction didn’t last too much longer, as Brazil came out all guns blazing in the second half.
The warning signs were there early for Mexico. Poor defending in the opening three minutes saw the ball break in the box for Brazil’s star of the group stage, Philippe Coutinho, but the Barcelona playmaker’s effort was straight at Ochoa.
Whatever Tite told his troops at half-time seemed to have worked. They were knocking hard on the proverbial door, and it didn’t take much more pressure to finally barge it down.
Neymar started it. In an illustrious Brazilian move, the 2014 poster boy started off wide left and changed direction with pace, heading towards the edge of the box before being faced by three Mexican defenders.
He played a simple yet effective backheel into the path of the impressive Willian, taking said defenders out of the game, and the Chelsea man plotted his route to the byline.
He breezed past Hugo Ayala who was slow to react, and whilst the rest of them were focused on him, Willian picked his head up and played a delightful ball across the box, and who was on the end of it? The man who started it all, Neymar.
It was typical Brazil. Tite’s men at their fluent, Braziliant best, and Mexico needed to respond. But despite that, it was the leaders who continued to charge.
Midfielder Paulinho spurned a huge chance minutes later after another superb move culminated in full-back Fagner picking him out in the box, but his first-time strike was easy enough for Ochoa to parry away.
Less than five minutes later, Ochoa was called upon again. Willian was in the thick of the action once more, showing great feet to beat Carlos Salcedo, but his powerful effort across goal was brilliantly kept out by the busy Mexican keeper.
The clear-cut chances dried up after that, but Brazil didn’t seem to mind. The South American giants never appeared under pressure and comfortably controlled the game, and they crowned a dominant display with just two minutes left on the clock.
With Mexico starting to commit bodies forward, Neymar was released into space down the left hand side and was bearing down on goal – a sight no opposition player or supporter in football wants to see.
He carried the ball forward, eventually getting himself into the area. The earlier goalscorer tried to bag his second by catching Ochoa out with a toe poke, but the goalkeeper did well to get a touch to the effort.
Unfortunately for him however, despite his best efforts the ball could only be flicked into the path of substitute Firmino, who was on hand to tap in his first World Cup goal for Brazil and seal his side’s safe passage through to the quarters.
No such surprises in the early game of today. Brazil deservedly and expectedly through to the last eight, and as they appear to be shifting through the gears with the tournament progressing, it seems as though it will take something special to stop them adding a sixth World Cup crown to their already illustrious trophy cabinet.
Belgium come from two down in dramatic fashion to break Japanese hearts
Roberto Martinez’s Belgium came back from a two goal deficit to defeat Japan in the last minutes of a thrilling encounter in Rostov-on-don.
Japan, who found themselves in dreamland as they were two goals to the good on the hour mark, could not withstand the threat of a star-studded Belgian side that had to revert to aerial tactics to overcome Japan’s defence which lacked height.
Goals from Premier League players Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli were enough to help Belgium to a lucky victory over the Asian side that won over the hearts of the watching world with a brave performance against one of the early favourites to win the tournament.
The first half was one of Belgian dominance, but Japan looked dangerous when they did attack, which was very rare.
Kevin De Bruyne littered the Japanese goal with crosses, a couple of which were very unlucky. The best of the bunch was an inswinging ball into Vincent Kompany, who returned to the starting lineup for Belgium after a muscle injury. The Manchester City captain athletically threw himself towards the ball, but could not quite direct it goalwards.
Japan also had chances. Thibaut Courtois had to be on guard a couple of times as the Asian side looked to get shots off at the earliest opportunity, but the first half ended goalless with Japan the happier of the two sides.
Akira Nishino’s side found themselves at a level more than happy three minutes into the second half as Genki Haraguchi fired them into the lead with an arrowed finish. Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen completely misjudged an interception allowing the Hannover winger to go through on goal and neatly tuck the ball into the corner from a tight angle.
It was a game that lacked in quality in the first half, but this goal set the ball rolling for what was to be one of the second halves of the tournament. Seconds after Haraguchi’s opener, Eden Hazard rattled the post with a measured effort from the edge of the box.
Belgium responded well, but minutes later the Japanese were in dreamland. Takeshi Inui curled a venomous strike into the bottom corner of Courtois’ goal, to fire Japan two goals ahead.
The Betis midfielder was Japan’s best player, as he was in the group stages, causing the Belgian defence all sorts of problems all evening. He was the main man going forward and looked the most likely to do the damage, which is exactly what he did with his sensational goal.
The headlines were written. Japan were going to be the first Asian team to reach the quarter final of the World Cup since Korea did so in the Japan/Korea World Cup of 2002. Roberto Martinez in the Belgian technical area was to be widely criticised and scrutinised around the globe for his sides dismal exit.
But, this is the World Cup. There is a twist and turn around every corner. Martinez looked to the sky in hope of help, but it was his substitutions that did the business for Belgium. He sent off Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini who changed the game for the better.
After ten minutes of probing, including a massive Lukaku miss, Belgium were back. After a sliced clearance, Jan Vertonghen lobbed the goalkeeper Kawashima with a header at the back post. It can be described as one of the more fluky goals of the tournament, but Belgium did not care, they had one goal back.
The Red Devils continued to litter the Japanese goal with chances, as the likes of De Bruyne and Hazard measured shots from the edge of the box, but Yoshida and Shoji were brilliant and blocked a plethora of shots with last ditch lunges.
It became evident that there was a way to beat this Japan side. Whilst Maya Yoshida is over six foot, from the defence forward, Japan had no players that were anywhere near six foot. Belgium, on the other hand, had height in abundance – Fellaini, Lukaku, Kompany – three of the biggest aerial threats in both the Premier League and world football.
So, what did Belgium do? Cross, cross, cross. Within minutes, this method paid off. Marouane Fellaini headed home an equaliser from close range. If used correctly, there aren’t many super subs better than Fellaini, for his sheer aerial dominance.
Japanese hearts were broken, but it looked like they were going to hold on. Kawashima, who has been criticised before in the tournament, was having a good game.
The Metz goalkeeper made a brilliant double save to deny Hazard and then Vertonghen, which looked to be the last Belgian chance of the match.
Japan were holding on, but they did have the odd foray forward. Thibaut Courtois had to be on his toes to deny a near Axel Witsel goal then a Keisuke Honda free kick from distance.
The Chelsea goalkeeper had to be on his toes a minute later, but for different reasons, as he sprinted to Roberto Martinez to celebrate the last minute winner that his side scored at the other end.
Keisuke Honda, who won the corner, declined to keep the ball in the corner and see the game out through to extra time. His cross was defended well and the ball ended up with the one player you don’t want the ball at the feet of in these positions – Kevin De Bruyne.
The Manchester City star took a glance up and was probably in awe at his findings – all he could see was the green of the pitch. Japan had committed men forward and left themselves extremely exposed at the back.
De Bruyne drove forward at pace, picked a pass to the advancing Thomas Meunier, who squared the ball into a box populated by one Japanese player and two Belgians. Romelu Lukaku dummied the ball through his legs and it fell to Nacer Chadli, who passed the ball into the goal for the winner.
Belgium players and fans were sent into euphoria, as they celebrated the dramatic win with the last kick of the game.
Roberto Martinez was tasked with getting the best of the golden generation, yet with half an hour to go, it looked as though his side were going to be eliminated at the hands of Japan, who have never won a knockout game.
Despite this, it was his substitutes that ultimately won Belgium the game, to setup a tie with Brazil on Friday in Kazan.
As for Japan, they can hold their heads high, for a courageous effort. They played the whole World Cup with a lot of heart and were a fun team to watch, and taught the rest of the world (ahem, England!) that no one should be written off at this years World Cup.
Player of the Day – Willian (Brazil)
“It’s just like watching Brazil!”
A phrase we have become accustomed to hearing, but one which hasn’t quite had the same meaning in more recent times.
Memories and tales from mesmerising Brazilian sides of years gone by have been passed down from generation to generation. From Pele to El Fenomeno, from the perfect passing side of 1970 to Roberto Carlos’ freakish left boot, the South American nation which prides itself on its fabulous footballing prowess has been spoiled by the game’s gods.
But times have changed.
Brazil have struggled in major competitions by their standards in the past decade. Discounting the Confederations Cup, A Seleção haven’t won a trophy since the Copa America in 2007, and are still waiting to add that much-anticipated sixth star to their crest.
Improvement appears to be on the horizon, but many still aren’t convinced that the current crop of heroes have what it takes.
But one man who majorly contributed to changing that perception today, was none other than wicked winger Willian.
The Chelsea man may not be the most illustrious of names in comparison to the likes of Neymar and Philippe Coutinho, but today he ran the show.
An unsung hero in Brazil’s class of 2018, Willian was the man who held the key to unlock Mexico’s defence on a scorching afternoon in Samara. Effortlessly galloping past defenders at will and linking up in a deadly attacking trio that also consisted of Neymar and Gabriel Jesus, it was he who found the killer pass for his country’s opener.
The Mexicans simply could not live with him.
There has been considerable talk linking the 29-year-old with a move away from Stamford Bridge this summer, but should anything materialise, it will be Chelsea’s loss if he can continue to perform like this on the biggest stage of all, for the nation which still to this day remains the best of them all.