It didn’t finish 7-1 but for long stretches it bore many of the hallmarks. Brazil were again knocked out of the World Cup. Brazil were again exploited on the counter-attack after losing an early goal. Brazil were again taken apart by the more clinical side.
Just as they had been feasted upon in Belo Horizonte by a devastating Germany four years ago, so the Selecao were pulled this way and that by a brilliant first half Belgium performance as Roberto Martinez’s side won 2-1 in Friday’s quarter-final at the Kazan Arena.
They had the emotional trauma of Neymar’s absence through injury to pinpoint as an excuse for their non-performance back in 2014 but here they cannot have any qualms about losing as their star number 10 turned in his worst performance of this tournament.
Belgium head to the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in 32 years having been magnificently set up by Martinez. Their victory in Kazan was their fifth in five attempts at this tournament but was by some distance their most complete display until a nerve-shredding final 15 minutes during which they were left hanging on for dear life.
And at the heart of it was Kevin de Bruyne, freed from his defensive midfield shackles by Martinez for the first time at this World Cup. The Manchester City man was picked to play just off the front two of Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku and was so often the leader of sizzling counter-breaks as he led the Brazilian back line a merry dance.
From having all the early momentum and creating a number of half-chances, including ones for Thiago Silva and Paulinho which ought to have seen them take the lead, Brazil somehow found themselves behind in the 13th minute when a left-wing corner from Nacer Chadli was diverted home by the upper arm of Fernandinho.
After going down Brazil continued to attack but with a hint more desperation about their play, and whenever Marcelo went forward Belgium lined themselves up for three-on-three counter-attacks in an attempt to put the game beyond doubt. Romelu Lukaku’s work on the right side of the forward line was particularly noteworthy as he regularly took up the space behind Marcelo to drag Joao Miranda out of position.
The Red Devils eventually grabbed their second on 31 minutes, with the magnificent Lukaku catching Brazil on the back foot and driving through the heart of their defence before teeing up De Bruyne. The Manchester City man’s clean strike never looked destined for anywhere but the far corner as he drilled superbly across Alisson.
The game looked teed up for Brazil to collapse once more just as they had done in the Mineirao when Miroslav Klose, Toni Kroos et al were rampant in their previous World Cup exit. But with every Belgium counter which came to nought, Brazil started to realise they were still in the contest.
More chances went begging, not the least of which found Paulinho reacting too late to a Thiabut Courtois parry from Douglas Costa’s low cross. This just didn’t feel like it was Brazil’s night.
They pulled a goal back on 76 minutes when Renato Augusto headed home a magnificent cross from the outside of Philippe Coutinho’s right boot, and had Coutinho found the net rather than the stands from a Neymar pull-back Brazil would likely have gone on to win the game such was the shift in momentum.
But in truth they had left it too late. They had been punished for their inability to take one of their many chances, and the clinical nature of De Bruyne’s strike was the deciding factor in the end.
The magical attacker, given the opportunity to truly express himself, had paid his head coach back in spades. The worst thing Martinez could do now is drop him back into a more withdrawn role against France in Tuesday’s semi-final.
For Brazil, there is nothing but regret at not having taken their chances. Their 26 shots at goal to Belgium’s nine were not enough. Neymar, the man with the hopes of a whole country on his shoulders, didn’t get the job done and neither did the rest of the side.
De Bruyne did. Lukaku did. Hazard did. And Belgium did. They go to the semi-finals having caused one of the upsets of a World Cup full of them.
They go to the semi-finals as the Golden Generation who could yet live up to their nickname. And, most importantly, they go to the semi-finals with De Bruyne hitting form.