There will be a certain sprinkling of swashbuckling superstardom when unbeaten Brazil take on unbeaten Belgium in Kazan on Friday night. Expectation falls heavy on both sides to make history but only one ultimately deliver.
A place in the semi-finals of the World Cup will be at stake at the Kazan Arena at 7pm when two of the pre-tournament favourites go head-to-head. The Brazilians are hungry for a sixth title while the Belgians are burdened with their very own ‘Golden Generation’ tag.
Brazil are five-time winners of the World Cup; 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002. In each of those years, they have impressed with the skill and flair that has come along with their unprecedented lust for success at international level.
Coming into the tournament, they were and perhaps still are the team to beat. After humiliation at the hands of Germany four years ago, a new generation of A Seleção stars have graced the squad and breezed through South American qualifying under head coach Tite.
They remain unbeaten and are favourites to beat the Red Devils on Friday, but we are yet to see them at their brilliant, Brazilian best so far. They have yet to totally hit their stride up front but three consecutive clean sheets at these finals – which makes nine clean sheets in 25 matches – offers a sterner side to Brazil that could stifle their opposition.
Even without suspended Casemiro in midfield, a meticulous Tite will have his side prepared for a battle in Kazan. His team’s hallmarks of building from the back and pressing high up the pitch will trouble their European counterparts, and they have the individuals to enact punishment when called upon. This side is gathering momentum after their slow start and that will worry other contenders.
This side might be entirely separate from the legendary Brazil teams that have come before them but, should we see their samba roots combine with this newfound pragmatic approach, a sixth star might just be within reach.
Belgium’s total of 12 goals – more than any other nation in Russia – and just four conceded is a record much more Brazilian-like. Roberto Martinez’s side have won all four of their games thus far and beating Brazil will set a new national record for consecutive World Cup victories.
Their showing at this tournament – with a few menacing minutes against Japan aside – has proven they are capable of getting the results their talented squad deserves. The number of outstanding individuals within the team is why they have been labelled the golden generation and they, in parts, have proven capable of living up to that title.
Three wins out of three in the group stage – including one against England that placed them on the difficult side of the draw – was a promising start, and a close 3-2 victory over Japan showed that this tournament might be different to 2014 and Euro 2016 when they failed to meet expectations.
The problem for Martinez, and Wilmots before him, is playing a style or system that gets the best out of his players. The ex-Wigan boss has deployed a 3-4-2-1 during his reign but has big decisions to make ahead of arguably the biggest game of his managerial career.
Will this formation hurt Brazil enough in wide areas? Will he stick with Witsel in midfield? How will they break through this well-drilled defence? These are all questions Martinez will be expected to answer.
If the Spaniard gets it right tactically and brings the best out of his star-studded squad when it really matters, we might have a World Cup classic on our hands in Kazan.
Real Madrid midfielder Casemiro is suspended and will be replaced by Fernandinho, head coach Tite confirmed this week. The 28-year-old will be dealt the perilous task of stifling Kevin De Bruyne in midfield.
Marcelo has recovered from a back injury that kept the full-back out against Mexico while Douglas Costa is also available having shaken off a muscle injury.
Brazil: Alisson, Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo, Fernandinho, Paulinho, Philippe Coutinho, Willian, Neymar, Gabriel Jesus.
Belgium: Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld, Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne, Nacer Chadli, Thomas Meunier, Marouane Fellaini, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku.