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Sports

Belgium sends 'frustrating' Japan packing with near-miss qualification

media Marouane Fellaini celebrates after Belgium won 3-2 against Japan on 2 July 2018 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. Reuters/Sergio Perez

Belgium produced a thrilling comeback in Rostov-on-don to advance to their second successive World Cup quarter-final.

Trailing to goals from Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui, they scored three times in 20 minutes.

Jan Vertonghen’s first had an element of luck about it. His header in the 69th minute looped over a befuddled Eiji Kawashima in the Japan goal.

Marouane Fellaini rose powerfully to head in Eden Hazard’s cross five minutes later. While fortune and fortitude brought them parity, fleet footedness provided Belgium with the spoils.

The winner was straight out of the school playground such was the counterattacking bravura.

With less than a minute to go, Japan poured forward for a potentially match winning corner.

It came to nothing as Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois seized the ball out of the air.

He trotted forward a few metres in his area and ushered the ball into the path of Kevin de Bruyne. The midfielder sped upfield and passed to Thomas Meunier on his right, he carried the ball on and he rolled it invitingly into the penalty area. Romelu Lukaku’s run took Makoto Hasebe with him and left substitute Nacer Chadli to sweep home.

Belgium boss Roberto Martinez played down the tactical ineffectiveness that led to his side’s two goal deficit. “You have to give credit to Japan,” he said. “They prepared well for the game and they frustrated us.”

But Martinez has been nothing but thorough in his own organisation. He was studied in his defiance about changing a winning team for the third Group G game against England. He brought in players who had not featured and emphasised the need for all outfield players to be on their game at the drop of a hat.

After 52 minutes, the hat had been dropped to create a huge hole for Martinez and his men.

“The second goal that we conceded affected us less than the first goal that Japan conceded,” said Martinez. “It was that sort of game. Mentally you had to be very strong. You didn’t have to accept that you were in a position to lose something. I felt that my players always had that belief that we could get back into it.”

That Belgium with the sleek wiles of Hazard and de Bruyne should use a 194 centimetre battering ram in the shape of Fellaini confounds the concepts of modern football with its desire to erode chance. Fellaini created hazards for Japanese defenders with his runs from deep midfield, said Martinez.

But it was the 11 seconds deep into stoppage time that killed Japanese dreams.

“At that point I thought we might go into extra time,” said Japan coach Akira Nishino. “However we did not really expect that kind of super counter attack, and my players didn’t expect within a few seconds, for the ball to be carried into our half. And that really decided the match.”

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