Both sides won their respective groups with ease, but the Red Devils were given a terrible fright by Japan in the round of 16 – they had to claw back a two-goal deficit to win 3-2. Brazil had no such difficulties in the previous round, cruising to a 2-0 victory over a disappointing Mexico side.
Belgium fired an early warning shot as Kevin de Bruyne shot wide in the second minute, after winning a midfield tussle with Manchester City club mate Fernandinho. Soon afterwards, Brazil threatened down the left, but Neymar’s cross was easily gathered by Thibaut Courtois.
As expected, the game started in open and entertaining fashion – rather too open from a Belgian point of view, at least from set pieces. Both Thiago Silva and Paulinho missed glorious opportunities to open the scoring from corners, Silva hitting the post and Paulinho scuffing his shot.
The Brazilians were made to pay for their profligacy in the 13th minute, as Fernandinho diverted a Nacer Chadli corner into his own net. For the first time in this summer’s World Cup, the Samba Boys were behind.
Seemingly undeterred, Brazil immediately went on the attack, and Willian forced Courtois into a diving save with an awkward cross from the right.
However, the Brazilians looked extremely vulnerable to Belgium’s counterattacking threat. Eden Hazard left Paulinho for dead with a superb piece of skill, before passing to the overlapping Thomas Meunier, who couldn’t find Romelu Lukaku with his cross.
Another swift counterattack enabled the Red Devils to double their lead in stunning fashion in the 31st minute. Lukaku dropped into midfield and fed de Bruyne, who smashed home an unstoppable strike from the edge of the penalty area.
With their dream of a sixth World Cup triumph rapidly slipping away, Brazil needed to achieve a remarkable turnaround. It didn’t help their cause when Gabriel Jesus wasted a free header. Courtois also saved well from a curling Philippe Coutinho strike.
One player conspicuous by his absence for much of the first half was Neymar. His side urgently needed him to provide the spark which they seemed to be lacking. For all their menacing attacks, the Seleção lacked penetration and rarely stretched Courtois.
As for Roberto Martinez’s side, they just needed to produce more of the same in the second half. The Spaniard hasn’t always enjoyed the confidence of Belgian fans or media, but his tactics looked spot on.
Belgium had a nervy moment soon after the restart, as a dangerous low cross from Marcelo eluded everyone. The Red Devils must have been even more nervous when Neymar went down in the box, but the referee correctly waved away his penalty claim.
The Brazilians had a far more compelling penalty claim turned down when Vincent Kompany rashly brought down Jesus. A frustrating night for the Brazil striker was brought to a premature end soon afterwards, as he was replaced by Douglas Costa.
Shortly after the hour mark, Belgium could have been out of sight after another rapid counterattack, but Hazard shot wide after being released by de Bruyne. At the other end, Costa tested Courtois, but the Belgians were starting to look increasingly comfortable. Chadli and the much-maligned Marouane Fellaini deserved special praise for frustrating Brazil in midfield.
Suddenly, with the match seemingly drifting away from them, Brazil were back in the game, as a wonderful through ball from Coutinho was headed home in emphatic fashion by substitute Augusto in the 76th minute.
It set up an extremely tense finish for the Belgians, as Brazil had started to dominate. Augusto ought to have levelled when he blasted a golden opportunity narrowly wide. With time rapidly running out, Coutinho wasted another wonderful chance to equalise, after excellent work on the left by Neymar.
Neymar once against went to ground in added time under pressure from Meunier. Once again, no penalty was awarded. Still, Belgium weren’t home and dry, and Courtois had to make a brilliant diving save from a curling effort from Neymar.
That proved to be Brazil’s last chance, and Belgium will march on to their first World Cup semi-final since 1986, where they will face France.