Japan deserved a quarter-final berth in the World Cup as they outplayed Belgium but the resilient Red Devils battled back from two down to beat the Samurai Blue 3-2 in a thriller at Rostov Arena on Monday.
It looked as if Belgium were facing an early exit like Spain, Argentina and Portugal after Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui scored a goal each for Japan in a five-minute spell in the second half.
Then an unusual looping header by Jan Vertonghen went over Japan’s keeper Eiji Kawashima at a difficult angle into the net followed by a header from substitute Marouane Fellaini and a last-gasp goal by another substitute Nacer Chadli (pictured) in the dying seconds.
Chadli and Fellaini made history as substitutes who helped their team make one of the greatest World Cup comebacks by scoring goals.
Although Belgium broke Japanese hearts in the end, the boys in blue shook the Red Devils to the core by unleashing wave after wave of attacks and dominating the game throughout. The winning goal for Belgium came in the last seconds when Japan threw caution to winds and went all out to score.
Belgium, which was hoping to enjoy a cat-and-mouse game, shed their complacency soon after the kick-off as Japan began to frustrate them with their quick and accurate passes, stoic defence, attacking frontline and ideating midfield.
Shinji Kagawa almost scored for Japan in the second minute but his shot from the edge of the box narrowly missed the target.
Red Devils realised they were facing a determined side and kept attacking Japan for 20 minutes to gain lead. They managed to put the rivals on the back foot and got some half-chances but the goal eluded them.
While going on the defensive in the first half, Japan still made forays that looked dangerous. Moreover, Red Devils were clueless and apprehensive about what the Samurai Blue’s next move would be.
In the second half, Belgium was expected to score an early goal. But to their shock, they received one in the 48th minute with a clinical finish by Haraguchi to a through ball from Shibasaki.
Two minutes later, Hazard’s shot rebounded off the post.
Inui scored the second goal for Japan in the 52nd minute with a powerful shot into the net past keeper Courtois.
Stung by the goals and facing a possible exit from World Cup, Red Devils tried to overcome the scare by mounting pressure on Japan. That paid off in the 70th minute. The tall Jan Vertonghen sent a looping header from the left side of the box. Japan’s keeper Eiji Kawashima, who moved towards the right post watching the ball, was deceived by its flight as it landed at the top corner of the net instead of going out as he thought.
Four minutes later, Eden Hazard sent a pinpoint cross and the tall Fellaini headed home for the equaliser.
Both teams went all out for the winning goal with Belgium looking more dangerous.
Kawashima pulled off a double save in the 87th minute to headers first from substitute Chadli and from veteran Lukaku. He then denied Vertonghen.
Three minutes into the added time, substitute Honda sent a powerful shot from 25 yards which was punched for a corner by Courtois. In the 94th minute, Meunier sent a low cross to Lukaku who let it go to Chadli to score from close range.
Had Japan played a more defensive game in the dying seconds, they could have prevented the winning goal for Belgium and tried their luck in the extra time or the penalty shoot-out.
Belgium will face Brazil in the quarter-finals.