NZME's award winning* football blog Goalmouth Scramble is back. Our rotating stable of football writers will offer daily hot takes on all the action from the World Cup in Russia. Today, Joel Kulasingham gets hyped about Belgium v Brazil.
When it comes to sporting events, there have been some absolute scorchers in 2018.
Some of the best: the NBA western conference finals game one (Rockets v Warriors, which was unfortunately one of the only great games during the NBA playoffs); the Winter Olympics, spawning narratives galore from Americans Adam Rippon and Chloe Kim, to Kiwi teenage medallists Zoi Sadowski Synnott and Nico Porteous; the Commonwealth Games, the most gender equal major games ever; and one of the biggest heavyweight boxing fights in years, especially for the U.K. and New Zealand (Joseph Parker v Anthony Joshua).
But the World Cup quarter final match between Belgium and Brazil could trump them all. Of course, rarely do these hyped up events deliver, but if any World Cup was to do it, it would be this one. (How good was that Belgium v Japan game?) Here's a preview of what could be a World Cup classic:
How will the teams line up?
Coach Roberto Martinez has fielded a similar side throughout the tournament with the exception of the game against England that both teams wanted to lose. (Even when Belgium were going out to lose, they still won - they're that good!) Apart from that, it's been pretty much the same side throughout, with injured centre back Vincent Kompany coming in for Dedryck Boyata in their last game against Japan.
Martinez sets his team up in an attacking 3-4-3, with wingers for wingbacks. It's a testament to the team's wealth of attacking talent that someone like Yannick Carrasco can only make it as a makeshift wingback. It was also a red flag for many who questioned Martinez's defensive nous coming into the tournament. The former Everton manager is known for his penchant for expansive attacking football, but can be found lacking defensively. But the difference this time is he also boasts three of the best defenders in the tournament in Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, with the immovable Axel Witzel guarding the back three. However, they will need to play better than they did against Japan, where they were outplayed for most of the game. It will be interesting to see how this side handles the likes of Neymar and Willian on the Brazilian flanks.
Substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli will be hoping to have done enough to get a call up after their late goals against Japan, but Martinez is likely to stick with his big guns. Plus, Fellaini – a tree personified – is the perfect plan B. Expect to see the same side we saw against Japan.
I've written about how much I love this Brazilian side, but I'll say it again. They have all the attacking flair and talent you would come to expect from a South American nation, but play like a European team – defensively organised, athletic and pragmatic. A lot of praise should be given to coach Tite, who has transformed the team from a team of individuals into a tite-knit (sorry) footballing powerhouse. At this stage in the tournament, they're the clear favourites despite being on the more difficult side of the draw.
Tite's choice of formation is 4-2-3-1 – also a favourite of Steve Hansen. It allows his side to set up with two defensive minded midfielders in Casemiro and Paulinho – who aren't chumps on attack either by the way. It also gives the front four license to play with more freedom. For this game however, they will be missing Casemiro who is suspended. But they've got a more than capable replacement in Fernandinho – who was one of the best midfielders in the Premier League last season. Something that could be exploited by Belgium is their lack of size. It's not a small team by any means, but any team is a small team when compared to the Belgians. Lukaku, Vertonghen, Witzel, with Fellaini coming off the bench, could cause Brazil some issues.
Brazil have been boosted by the fitness of Marcelo, who Tite confirmed will start in place of Felipe Luis. The other decision he will have to make will be the striker's role. Gabriel Jesus who has been starting up front has been disappointing, but earned his role through a stellar qualifying campaign as well as a strong season for Manchester City. The other man waiting in the wings is Roberto Firmino, a fan favourite and a less traditional number 9. I think Tite will stick with Jesus, but it'll be a tough call.
Who has the better front four?
Brazil's front four:
Gabriel Jesus, Neymar, Willian, Philippe Coutinho
Belgium's front four: Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Kevin De Bruyne
This one's tough. On paper, I think Belgium edges it. Belgium have also scored the most goals in the tournament so far. But if we go by how they've been playing and how they set up within their respective sides, I think Brazil have the better front four. Coutinho has been one of the best players of the tournament so far, while Willian has been consistent as ever. Neymar and Jesus have been playing below their standards but are capable of moments of brilliance.
Quick power rankings:
2. De Bruyne
Who has the better defence?
This one is a no-brainer. Brazil have the best defence in the tournament. Uruguay have a better defensive record, but the way Brazil have set up defensively, their organisation, their desire, has been one of the most impressive things this whole tournament.
What has the pre-game chatter been like?
In the words of Andy Gray's annoying FIFA 11 commentary: "Respectful… maybe too respectful."
Brazilian centre back Miranda started things off with the usual pre-game niceties.
"[Belgium] are a very strong attacking team," he said in the pre-game press conference. "They have several high qualities, very skilful, and can play a very vertical game. But our defence is going to be well prepared to neutralize all of their attacks."
Tite decided to slam penalty kicks, but didn't really have any better ideas to replace it.
"Taking a penalty is something really hard. A football match should never end by taking penalties," Tite said. "I don't see that as a valid result. But I don't know what to suggest instead.
"Taking penalties is a technique that is associated with emotional control. We have been practicing penalties. It's an incredible responsibility."
Martinez on the other hand, seemed relatively excited about the occasion and said there was "something special" about his side.
"The two sides are very similar in terms of qualities," said Martinez. "The difference is we haven't won a World Cup - simple as that. When you go into a tournament if you don't have that know-how of winning one you can't have an advantage on the opponent.
"We shouldn't play Brazil, we shouldn't be in awe of the opportunity we have. We need to enjoy our game, be ourselves. When we do that our talent shows. There is something special in this squad, no doubt about it. The signs are positive and of a real desire to be on the football pitch.
"We can't wait. I feel we are as ready as we can be. Over the last two years we have been working towards this moment."
I can't wait too, Roberto.
What's up with Neymar?
He's been pretty bad hasn't he? He's comfortably the third best player in the world behind Messi and Ronaldo, but he's not playing like it. I think he's crumbling under the pressure. The diving and rolling only emphasises his extreme desire to win this thing. I'm not as annoyed with his theatrics, which I think is more of an ultra-competitive trait like Luis Suarez's biting - it comes as a combined package with some great players. But he really needs to step it up on the field. I predict he shows everyone why he's great in this game.
Speaking of predictions, who ya got?
Considering I picked Germany to win the whole thing, I think I better stay away from the prediction game. (Although I did pick Russia to knock out Spain in the round of 16.) Oh what the hell, Brazil 3-2.
Are you overhyping this and will this end up playing out as a dull cagey 0-0 draw, with someone winning on penalties?
*Goalmouth Scramble's "award" was more of an inter-company acknowledgement in an email from 2012.
Previously, on Goalmouth Scramble:
Niall Anderson: 10 things to do when there's no World Cup games to watch
Chris Rattue: Why England haven't got a hope of winning the World Cup
Damien Venuto: Why the world might want England to lose
Steven Holloway: 10 thoughts on the World Cup, and why Neymar is a d**k
Damien Venuto: The villains of the World Cup
Joel Kulasingham: The 11 All Blacks who would dominate* the FIFA World Cup
Chris Rattue: Bring on the penalty shootouts
Niall Anderson: So, uh, which of these World Cup teams are actually good?
Steven Holloway: Funbag: Messi and World Cup conspiracy theories
Michael Burgess: Why I'm missing Sepp Blatter
Cam McMillan: The far too early second round projections
David Leggat: A few things you need to know about the World Cup
Damien Venuto: Messi - The Argentinean Andrew Mehrtens?
Cam McMillan: Why Brazil will (and won't) win the World Cup
Niall Anderson: The best (and worst) games to watch
Chris Rattue: Funny footballs and goalkeepers
Chris Rattue: The big World Cup questions
Steven Holloway: Fancy a punt? The World Cup's best bets