Belgium used a combination of daring, intelligence, resilience and not a little luck to oust World Cup favourites Brazil 2-1 in a memorable quarter-final tie on Friday that would have made a worthy final.
After disappointing quarter-final exits in their last two major tournaments, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez has instilled some self-belief in an outstandingly talented generation of players that seemed to have been missing in the past.
Martinez changed Belgium’s formation and started the game with the line-up that finished the 3-2 win over Japan, when his side came roaring back from two goals down.
Kevin De Bruyne was moved to a less familiar role just behind the forwards, while Romelu Lukaku was moved to the right and Eden Hazard to the left.
Brazil’s usually impregnable defence, which had conceded only six goals in 25 matches under coach Tite, suddenly looked very vulnerable and was repeatedly sliced apart in the opening half hour.
Brazil left back Marcelo left an avenue as he went on forays upfield, and there were several attacks when Belgium had a player completely free on the right as they broke forward.
The second goal was a textbook counter-attack. After Belgium cleared a corner, Lukaku turned into space and burst down the middle. He had two free team mates to pass to on the right and chose De Bruyne, who thumped a low shot past Alisson.
At that point, Brazil looked as if they might capitulate as they did in their astonishing 7-1 semi-final defeat to Germany four years ago.
But they pulled themselves together and came charging back after halftime, showing Belgium that they too have a resilient side - something which many had doubted.
Neymar, however, could find no way through as his runs down the left were repeatedly blocked and he was reduced to desperate appeals for penalties.
Belgium also used intelligence to break up Brazil’s momentum as they kept possession in midfield, frustrating them and forcing them into giving away free kicks which cost the South Americans precious seconds.
Eden Hazard played a key role as he forced Fernandinho into a tackle which cost him a yellow card, then drew a foul from Miranda which he celebrated as if he had scored a goal.
Belgium also enjoyed some luck. They escaped a couple of possible penalties which other referees might have given and an early Thiago Silva shot against the post which might have changed the course of the game completely.
When all else failed, there was Thibaut Courtois who made several outstanding saves including one in the fourth minute of stoppage time to turn away a Neymar shot that was heading for the top corner.
“You need to get a tactical advantage when you play Brazil,” said Martinez. “The execution of the tactics was magnificent. In two days they (Belgium’s players) changed their tactical disposition. I couldn’t be prouder.”