ROSTOV-ON-DON: Belgium passed a test of character with a display of true grit that bodes well for a World Cup quarter-final against Brazil, coach Roberto Martinez said after they came from 2-0 behind to beat Japan 3-2 in injury time.
“In the World Cup you want to be perfect — but it’s about getting through, it’s about winning,” said the Spaniard, who was hired after a side packed with English Premier League talent collapsed against Wales in the Euro 2016 quarter-final.
“This is down to the personality, to the focus, to the desire, to the never-give-up-attitude of this group of players,” said Martinez after substitute Nacer Chadli slammed home four minutes into stoppage time on Monday, breaking the hearts of Japan fans whose side scored twice early in the second half.
“It was a test of character and you see the reaction of our subs coming on to win the game,” he said. “It tells you everything about this group of players.” His other substitute, Marouane Fellaini, scored Belgium’s 74th-minute equaliser.
Run ragged at times by the skilful and determined Samurai Blue, who are 58 places behind them at 61st in FIFA’s world rankings, the Red Devils will look hard at their defensive frailties and difficulties in turning pressure into goals before they face Brazil in the quarter-final in just four days.
“No negatives today, it was about getting through,” Martinez insisted, offering the highest of praise for Japan’s skill and tactics. “It is a day to be very proud of these players.
“Keep believing in Belgium.”
For the Brazil game, he said, his side would draw on the lessons of Rostov, when after an apprehensive first half as heavy favourites they had to attack with “nothing to lose” to get back into the match.
Against Brazil, who Martinez believes are the best side in the tournament, no one will expect too much from Belgium and the players are relishing that opportunity to try and cause an upset.
Captain Eden Hazard said that at 2-0 his side was having flashbacks to their humbling defeat by Wales two years ago.
“But the reaction today was huge,” Hazard said. “Maybe this was the kind of game we needed,” he added.
Now, he said, “playing Brazil is a dream”.
Goalscorer Chadli called his winner “a goal for an entire nation”.
Martinez’s 65th-minute substitutions, putting on Chadli for Dries Mertens and Manchester United’s towering Fellaini in the centre in place of Yannick Carrasco on the left, paid off.
At times his decision to rest almost his entire first team in a largely meaningless final group win over England on Thursday had looked questionable as Belgium struggled to find each other in the face of buzzing Japanese defence across the park.
But, as Japan coach Akira Nishino conceded, the strength in depth on the Belgian bench, well blooded after beating England 1-0, was to make the difference in the last 25 minutes.
“The substitutions worked well,” Chadli said.
“We’re all here to give it our all … The bench told us to just go for because we were just not in the game.”