For a moment, it looked to be the greatest game in Japanese soccer history. Up 2-0 against Belgium, Japan was looking at a first ever trip to the World Cup quarterfinals.
But Belgium unleashed its world-class quality and ripped off three straight goals, the last coming in the dying seconds of regulation, to crush Japan’s hopes on Monday in Rostov-on-Don.
In the 94th minute, Belgium went on a 4-on-3 break, led by Thomas Meunier, who slid the ball across to Romelu Lukaku. Instead of shooting, Lukaku faked and let the ball go clear to Nacer Chadli, who punched in the winning goal and set off a wild celebration in the stadium and across Belgium
The victory avoided a demoralizing defeat for Belgium’s so-called Golden Generation of players that has long promised a great performance at a major championship and now seems poised to deliver it, at least if it can get past mighty Brazil in the quarterfinal on Friday.
Belgium dominated the first half, but was frustrated time and again by Japan’s pesky defense, which always seemed to be in the right place to clear a pass or block a shot.
But it was Japan that improbably jumped on the scoreboard three minutes into the second half. Jan Vertonghen badly missed a back pass, giving Genki Haraguchi a chance through on goal. He finished clinically, and Japan was in front.
While the first goal came after an error, the second, four minutes later, was pure class. Japan passed the ball around with some skill, and it eventually found Takashi Inui at the top of the box. It didn’t look like a golden chance, but he turned and rifled it into the net.