A last-gasp Nacer Chadli winning goal saved Belgium from an embarrassing exit with a 3-2 comeback win against Japan.
The two teams were coming into this Round of 16 clash in very different mindsets.
Belgium finished the group with three wins and +7 goal difference, while Japan ended their group campaign with a 1-0 loss to already-eliminated Poland, advancing over Senegal only on fair play points.
It was the first time ever it came down to this tiebreaker, and many fans and pundits felt it to be unfair, citing the theory that it is essentially decided by refereeing assignments and the different styles of different referees.
Roberto Martinez rested the majority of his starters against England, as they have already advanced and a loss would land them in the half of the draw that is widely considered to be weaker.
Japan made six changes in their match against Poland, something for which the manager Akira Nishino has received a lot of criticism, as Japan could have been eliminated.
Belgium were considered to be strong favourites due to their better form and stronger players on probably every single position.
The first 20 minutes of the match were quite dull. Kagawa was the first one with a shot, but it was Belgium who controlled the match. Active defending neutralized the Belgian attacking threat.
Whenever Eden Hazard or Romelu Lukaku found themselves with the ball within range of goal, they always had three or four Japanese defenders on them.
Belgium had a huge chance in the 25th minute as Dries Mertens played the ball in to Lukaku, who can’t quite settle it as Maya Yoshida gives him a little shove in the back, just putting him off. The ball was left hanging in the six-yard box for a little while, but Eiji Kawashima had it covered.
This move began 10 minutes of intense pressure from Belgium, with Vincent Kompany making a run and getting an opportunity on the far-post and both Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne trying some long shots.
Japan were also coming forward on the counter. Shinji Kagawa passed his man, laid the ball off to Yuto Nagatomo for the cross, but Takashi Inui heads it directly at Thibault Courtois.
The teams went into the half-time break at 0-0, Japan maybe feeling quite lucky to do so.
Genki Haraguchi stunned Belgium by putting one behind Courtois in the 48th minute, opening the scoring. The usually-reliable Jan Vertonghen made a mistake on an interception that left him chasing down Haraguchi, the winger places it low to the far-post, past Courtois.
Just four minutes later, Takashi Inui doubles the shocking Japanese lead, striking the ball cleanly and powerfully from 25 yards, giving Courtois no chance.
Axel Witsel was late to close the winger down, and Belgium get punished. No fancy spin and bend on that ball, just Inui hitting the life out of the ball.
Belgium have two huge chances to answer right away, Hazard nails the post, Lukaku glanced a header wide, it looked like a night where it just wasn’t meant to be for Belgium, but how wrong they would prove everyone.
In the 65th minute, Roberto Martinez brought on Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli for Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco, two subs initially questioned by me that would prove to be the Midas touch of the Belgian manager.
It was Jan Vertonghen, who was largely at fault for the first goal, that got one back for Belgium.
The ball bounced way out to the far post, Vertonghen produced a beautiful looping header that beat Kawashima. The spectators are left to speculate whether he meant to just head it back into the box, but they count anyway.
It was Belgian super-sub Marouane Fellaini that tied the game up after a wonderful cross from Eden Hazard.
Fellaini might not offer much in the playmaking department, but he’s certainly made an impact with his head. This was in the 74th minute, and both teams would keep looking for the winning goal to put them through before extra time.
It was beautiful side-to-side football. In the 86th minute, the 35-year-old Eiji Kawashima pulled out two incredible acrobatic saves after headers from Chadli and Lukaku. Words cannot describe how impressive the agility of Kawashima was.
On the other side, Japan’s super-sub Keisuke Honda already scored a winner against Senegal off the bench.
Honda created a scoring opportunity after going for goal from a free kick 40 yards out, making Courtois come up with a great save.
Courtois came out to intercept the subsequent corner, and started the counter-attack that would decide this game.
He rolled the ball to De Bruyne, who sprinted with it to the halfway line, passed it through to Meunier, who crossed it in low, Lukaku left it for Chadli who smashed it in, giving Belgium the winner.
It was absolute heartbreak for Japan, who were seconds away from taking Belgium to extra time.
Belgium must be energized by this win, but also realize that against Brazil in the quarterfinals, they will need to be on from the first minute.
Japan’s unlikely journey ends. Many were disappointed to see that they were through ahead of the more exciting Senegal side, but they gave everyone a good show and shut critics up with their performance.