Kazan: Ahead of a decisive quarter-final clash against Belgium, Brazil coach Tite termed “mental fortitude” as the biggest challenge to win the World Cup. The pressure was immense for the Selecao, facing a golden generation that had nothing to lose.
Half an hour inside the contest, they found themselves in two goals behind – from a Kevin De Bruyne’s thunderbolt outside the box preceded by a Fernandinho own goal.
The South Americans came back hungrier and responded with a renewed sense of urgency. Renato Augusto restored hope but at the final whistle, Roberto Martinez's men ended a 32-year wait to reach the top four.
So how did the Red Devils edge the five-time World champions in Kazan?
Fernandinho fails to shoulder Casemiro’s burden
The presence of Casemiro to Tite’s system cannot be understated. Take him out from the Real Madrid squad and you can see the difference.
With Casemiro, Brazil had so far allowed only five shots on target across four matches, conceding a solitary goal – inordinately that came from a controversial set-piece. And now without their midfield marshal (who missed through suspension), the Selecao were abruptly caught off guard with two goals down.
Fernandinho was his automatic replacement but unlike his compatriot, the Manchester City holder was sluggish in the middle of the park and could not cover up the empty spaces exposed, well in time. Paulinho, his partner, could not help much as he surged forward into the penalty box to support the attack.
Belgium shut shop in the middle of the park
Belgium lined up in a 3-4-3 formation but when Brazil had the ball, they defended in 4-3-3 formation with Thomas Meunier reverting back to the right back spot. The Europeans were happy in letting Brazil enjoy the possession as long as the passage of play in the midfield was blocked.
Tite’s best creative players - Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Willian attempted to cut inside but were futile in finding the tiny gaps. Brazil registered more than triple the amount of crosses inside the first half – 16 opposed to Belgium’s 5 but it was the Les Diables Rouges that had the aerial edge.
Nine of Martinez’s men were above 6 feet compared to only three from the opposition.
Kevin De Bruyne’s springs back to life
I previously explained why Martinez needs to extract the best out of De Bruyne, who has been shoehorned into the Spaniard’s system to find a balance between attack and defence. Martinez sprung a tactical change by deploying him as a false nine that reaped huge benefits.
An independent attacking role saw the Manchester City craftsman support Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard up front, free from the deep-lying playmaker role that had shunned him off his creative abilities.
The baby-faced midfielder pulled the strings with sangfroid and carved out open the Brazilian defence like a hot knife through butter. His finish was the icing on the cake, leaving no chance for Alisson with an absolute belter from outside the box.
Romelu Lukaku’s free role pays dividends
Martinez went back to the Everton days and deployed the robust number nine wide on the right channel. And big Rom emerged as a revelation in his new role – hugging the touchline and exploiting the acres of space Marcelo left behind in defence.
As a result, Joao Miranda was forced to rush to the left side constantly that left a big space at the heart of defence, disrupting Brazil's defensive shape. Tellingly, his off the ball movement was spectacular.
For Belgium’s second, he dropped deep to collect the ball before making a sharp turn, setting up a platter for De Bruyne who made no mistake.
#BEL have now produced nine different scorers at the 2018 #WorldCup:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) July 6, 2018
⚽️ De Bruyne#ITA in 2006 (10) were the last team to produce more scorers at a single tournament. pic.twitter.com/KcERuNRsJg
Missed chances hurt dearly
Brazil was the first nation to qualify for the tournament and prepared meticulously for a shot at their sixth World Cup. Failing to exorcise the demons of 2014, Tite revamped the entire team, finding the exquisite balance that previous successors Felipe Luiz Scolari and Dunga failed to meet.
But now the South Americans have themselves to blame. They had the brightest of starts and came close to finding the lead from set-pieces early on, which were squandered.
Substitutes Douglas Costa, Firmino and Augusto turned the tide of the game and had a go at the weary Belgium defence. However, the impenetrable wall shielded by Thibaut Courtois stood up to the task again to see them through.