Brazil faces its toughest test yet: a quarterfinal against the highest-scoring team in this World Cup, with Casemiro unavailable through suspension.
Brazil vs. Belgium
Kazan Arena, Kazan, July 6, 2018
Kickoff: 2:00 PM EDT / 3:00 PM BRT / 6:00 PM GMT
US TV: FS1, Telemundo
Starting Lineup: Alisson; Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda (C), Marcelo; Fernandinho, Paulinho, Coutinho; Willian, Gabriel Jesus, Neymar.
Marcelo, fit again after his back spasm kept him out against Mexico, retakes his starting spot, but the more notable (and more worrisome) change comes by necessity: with Casemiro suspended for yellow card accumulation, Fernandinho will start in defensive midfield. He’s shown in the past that he can more or less take care of business there, at least for one game—indeed, he played the exact same role at the same stage against Colombia four years ago—but Casemiro’s reading of the game and tackling ability has been absolutely critical to Brazil’s defensive solidity in this tournament, and his absence could open holes for Belgium to enjoy. On the plus side, Casemiro’s slate is now wiped clean, so he’ll be back for the semis.
There’s a small doubt about Paulinho’s fitness—Tite subbed him off against Mexico because he’d picked up a knock, and he trained separately from the group on Wednesday—but as of when I’m writing this, it looks like he’ll start. If he’s not, though, Tite specifically listed Marquinhos(!) as an alternative option, pointing out that he used Marquinhos in midfield when he made his senior debut for Corinthians.
Zetona’s Opposition Profile™:
Current Form: Belgium are unbeaten in their last 23 games, stretching back to shortly after Euro 2016, scoring a pretty remarkable 76 goals during that time. They’re the top scorers of the World Cup so far with 12 goals, and alongside Uruguay are the only teams to have won all four of their games. In their Round of 16 game against Japan, they staged a remarkable comeback, coming from 2-0 down with 25 minutes to play to win 3-2 without needing extra time, which will likely leave them high on confidence going into Friday’s game.
That all paints a scary picture for us, but there’s a few caveats to keep in mind. First of all, much of this record has come from the luck of the draw. They’ve enjoyed extremely easy groups both in World Cup qualifying and the Cup itself. Their closest thing to proper competition in qualifying came from Greece and Bosnia, whose main accomplishment was not losing to them 9-0 or 8-1 like Gibraltar or Estonia did. This month, they’ve racked up their wins against Panama and Tunisia, two of the weakest sides at the tournament; a heavily rotated England side aware that losing would put them on the easier side of the bracket; and a Japan team that arguably only made it this far because Colombia went down a man almost immediately in their opening game.
They’ve supplemented all this by choosing fairly easy opposition in their friendlies over the past two years, and their record against more favored opposition might be more telling. England is the closest thing to a genuine contender they’ve actually beaten in this time, and of course that comes with a sizable asterisk; otherwise, they’ve lost 2-0 to Spain and drawn 0-0 with Portugal, 1-1 with the Netherlands, and 3-3 with Mexico.
Style: But don’t think that means we can count them out. Belgium have one of the top five squads in the tournament (and, with Spain and Germany out, one of the remaining three best), and can count on high-quality players in every sector, including genuinely world-class talents like Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne. Ex-Everton coach Roberto Martínez has perhaps not truly turned this team into a unified whole, especially at the back, but he’s unleashed their attacking power. They use width very well, switching the ball with ease to stretch opposing defenses, and can be absolutely devastating if allowed to break quickly, as they were in the dying moments against Japan.
A word of warning: I’ve really only watched this Belgium side against the teams they’ve faced in this tournament—fairly weak ones (England excepted, but it’s not worth reading much into that game) that allowed them to come forward and create the lion’s share of the chances. (As much as they struggled against Japan, they still outshot them 24-11, their best ratio of the tournament.) Brazil’s defense is too good to afford them those sorts of numbers, but in turn, we’re more likely to attack them and open up the sort of spaces at the back that their quick counters are likely to exploit. How Belgium sets up to try and exploit that is anybody’s guess.
Past World Cup Record: Belgium are in their 12th World Cup, but only their second in a row after missing both the 2006 and 2010 editions. 2014 was the first World Cup for the current golden generation, but under Marc Wilmots, a bona-fide Bad Coach, they did very little—winning their first four games in narrow, labored fashion against fairly unremarkable opposition like Russia and South Korea, and then quite toothlessly losing 1-0 to Argentina in the quarterfinal.
Martínez may not have truly solved their problems, but he certainly has them in better shape going forward: this year’s team has already doubled the 2014 team’s goal tally (12 to 6). On the other hand, having played one fewer game they’ve already conceded more goals than their predecessors (4 to 3).
Last Only Game Against Them: Brazil have played Belgium exactly once, in the Round of 16 of the 2002 World Cup. It was one of the trickiest games of Brazil’s winning campaign, as Belgium at least matched them in terms of chances created and forced Marcos into several excellent saves. It took until the 67th minute to break the deadlock, when Rivaldo hit a powerful half-volley that went in with the aid of a deflection, before Ronaldo killed off the game in the 87th minute after Belgium had pushed forward in search of an equalizer. Highlights here.
Opposing Player To Watch: While Belgium has plenty of talent from back to front, the danger man is undeniably Eden Hazard. He’s their best dribbler, he’s in the form of his life, and for long stretches against Japan he looked like the only Belgian player genuinely interested in making something happen. While the rest of the team seemed hesitant or just disinterested (watch how Kevin de Bruyne just stands there as Takashi Inui lines up the shot for Japan’s second right in front of him), Hazard kept working, dropping deep to pick up the ball, running at Japan’s defense, trying to play in teammates. Not only that, he’s likely to operate in just the zones where Brazil might be vulnerable—he could give Fagner hell every time he runs down the left, and when he drops deeper, he could cause as much trouble for Fernandinho as James Rodríguez did four years ago.
Prediction: Brazil 3-2 Belgium. I predict this will be That Game, the tightly-contested, high-scoring match out of keeping with Brazil’s typical dominance in the campaign and remembered fondly for years to come—think our 3-2 wins against the Dutch in 1994 or against Denmark in 1998. Without Casemiro, we’ll struggle to contain their forays forward, and they’ll have more joy in front of our goal than any team we’ve faced so far. But with the game fairly open, a back line that conceded multiple goals against Tunisia and Japan will struggle mightily with the likes of Neymar and Willian, and that mismatch will make the difference in our favor.