So Belgium got Brazil. At least, that’s what everyone in England was desperately hoping for and then perhaps even cheering for when the Roberto Martinez’s side won Group G on Thursday night.
Before his team can even begin thinking about facing off against Neymar & Co. The former Everton coach will have to carefully guide Belgium past a potential banana skin in Japan.
Although the Asian side may not be the most formidable team in the competition, they have already caused at least one up set in the tournament and could be perfectly prepared to do it again.
How they got on in the groups
In many ways, Martinez has played to his strengths as a manager in this summer’s competition and that is perfectly clear to anyone that has watched the Red Devils in each of their three World Cup games to date.
With a relatively top-heavy squad to hand, Belgium have scored no less than nine goals in three games as the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Belgian all-time goalscorer Romelu Lukaku have made short work of relative minnows Panama and Tunisia.
However, like most his sides, Belgium have looked a little soft at the back. The former Wigan manager’s decision to use wingbacks has often left both flanks exposed and although two goals from three games is nothing to worry about on paper, both England and Panama did threaten Thibaut Courtois’ goal a little more often than he may have liked.
Japan, contrastingly, have been a little harder to pin down. An opening day 2-1 win over Colombia suggested that the oldest squad in this World Cup still had some juice left in the tank.
However, experience can only account for so much and following the unexpected win over the 10-men. Akira Nishino’s struggled to match a tactically-astute Senegal in a 2-2 draw, before losing 1-0 to a Polish side that had already been eliminated from the tournament.
Bizarrely enough, Japan seem to have stumbled their way in to the knock-out rounds after finishing level on points and goals scored with Senegal and then going through on the controversial fair play ruling.
Although they still have some exciting players such as Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Yuto Nagatomo there’s very little to suggest that they actually deserve to have qualified from the group at all.
So far in this competition, Belgium have hit more shots towards the opposing goal than any other nation, aside from Germany and Brazil, and an impressive 92% of those shots have come from open play, as opposed to set pieces or headers in the box. The Red Devils also have the highest goals per 90 record in the tournament at 2.83.
What’s perhaps even more intriguing is the fact that 40% of those shots have been on target. And despite having scored nine goals in three games, Belgium’s xG for those matches stands only at 5.86. Essentially, Martinez’s front line have been exceptionally accurate in their shooting and ability to finish off a move in this competition to date.
Japan, on the other hand, haven’t been nearly as impressive. Although the Blue Samurai have arguably had a much tougher group than the likes of Panama or Tunisia, their goals per 90 stands at 1.26 – that‘s under half of Belgium’s current tally.
Indeed, Japan’s problem seems to be their inability to turn notable control over a game in to genuine, attacking flair or indeed goals. Nishino’s side have the sixth highest number of passes per 90 in the tournament so far and their passes in to the final third per 90 has them sitting fifth, but 20 countries have a better shots per 90 record than the Asian side.
Which, when we consider their aforementioned goals per 90 tally, suggests there’s often a real problem creating genuine goalscoring opportunities.
With all due respect to Japan, this coming last 16 tie is perhaps the most one-sided affair of the round and many expect Belgium to overcome Kagawa & Co. with very little trouble on the night.
On Sunday, we essentially have a tie between one of the genuine, dark horses of the tournament that could probably field two full teams to compete for the trophy this summer and a team that wouldn’t have got out of their group had the rules from the previous tournament been in place.
Japan have done well to get this far, and they are by no means a poor side, but Nishino’s team would have to pull off an almighty upset to get past this Belgium, free-scoring team.