Belgium will be taking the momentum of their late comeback victory over Japan into one of the biggest games in the national team’s history when they meet Brazil for a place in the semi-finals.
At 2-0 down against Japan, another major setback for Belgium’s brilliant generation seemed likely, but three goals including a last-gasp winner have put them into a quarter-final showdown with the record world champions.
The match in Kazan will be a defining moment for Belgium, who are seeking a place in the last four for only the second time after coming fourth in 1986.
The winner of that game faces either 1998 champions France or two-time winners Uruguay for a place in the July 15 final.
Belgium are the first team to come from two or more goals down to win a World Cup knock-out stage match within 90 minutes since Portugal beat North Korea 5-3 from 3-0 down in the 1966 quarter-finals.
“If you look at the stats there are not many games where you can come back from 2-0 down at a World Cup,” coach Roberto Martinez said.
“I think this is down to the personality, to the focus, to the desire, to the never-give-up attitude of the players and almost the belief of the players when the came on. Doing it within the 90 minutes was an incredible achievement.”
Martinez now says the pressure of being favourites will be off against Brazil and his side can go out and enjoy the game.
“You have to understand that they are the best team in the competition,” he said.
“The quicker you understand your role the better everything gets clear. We will have to have real clarity about how to play against opposition like that with the quality of individuals like Philippe Coutinho, Neymar, players that can decide the game in one second.”
Belgium played the first half against Japan “almost with a fear of not being able to fulfil the tag of being favourites,” Martinez said.
“I thought when we went 2-0 down it was a psychological aspect of ‘ok, we’ve got nothing to lose now, we can almost enjoy the opportunity of getting back into it.’
“And I think against Brazil we can enjoy it from the first minute. I don’t think we are favourites, I don’t think everyone expects us to go through to the semi-finals.
“So I think it’s a game that when you are a little boy you dream of being involved in, a World Cup facing Brazil in a quarter-finals, so from our point of view we can really enjoy it from the first second.”
Two years ago, Belgium’s golden generation were beaten 3-1 by Wales in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, and at the 2014 World Cup went out 1-0 to Argentina in the quarter-finals.
After Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui put Japan ahead, Belgium had to thank a double substitution in the 65th minute when Maroune Fellaini and Hacer Chadli came on.
Jan Vertonghen pulled one back with a looping header in the 69th minute before Fellaini headed in a cross from Eden Hazard and Chadli scored in the fourth and last minute of stoppage time in a devastating counter-attack.
“We were thinking it was going to be like two years ago against Wales, but we were also thinking if we can score goals the game is on,” Hazard said.
“When it comes to the match on Friday, it is going to be magnificent because playing against Brazil is always amazing as a football player. We are going to rest really well and going to really try to win that match.”
Japan left the World Cup regretting the way they had conceded at the end after pushing up to get the winner from a corner. It was their one mistake in an otherwise tactically flawless performance, and a credit to coach Akira Nishino, who had only taken over in April.