Thibaut Courtois’ fingertip save of Neymar’s curling shot in the third minute of second-half stoppage time allowed Belgium to escape Kazan with a 2-1 victory over five-time champion Brazil on Friday and advance to its first World Cup semifinals in 32 years.
The keeper was immense in the final half-hour when the Selecao had virtually one-way traffic towards Belgium’s goal as they tried to overturn a two-goal deficit in similar fashion to what the Red Devils did against Japan in the previous round.
Roberto Firmino played the ball from his left to Neymar as he came to his right, and the 20-yard effort was true and going for the upper right side, but Courtois stretched all of his 6-foot-5 frame and got his right hand to the shot and send it over the bar for a corner that failed to amount to anything.
The Chelsea No. 1 finished with eight saves, nearly doubling his total of 10 from all of his first four matches.
While Brazil would pull one back through Renato Augusto in the 76th minute, that equalizer would never come as it joined defending champion Germany and South American archrival Argentina as teams who ran into their final demise in Kazan.
It is a legacy-defining victory for Belgium’s golden generation as it reached the final four for the first time since 1986 in Mexico and ensured an all-European final four in Russia. Belgium will next face France on Tuesday in St. Petersburg, with the winner claiming a spot in the World Cup final.
The Red Devils got an own goal from Brazil midfielder Fernandinho in the 13th minute and a world-class strike from Kevin De Bruyne in the 31st as Roberto Martinez got both his personnel and tactics right in what was viewed as the most pivotal match in Belgium’s history.
Brazil’s misery against European sides in the knockout round continued, with this elimination its fourth in as many World Cup appearances at the hands of old continent rivals since winning its most recent title in 2002. The Selecao had dropped quarterfinal matches to France (2006) and the Netherlands (2010) before their 7-1 drubbing in the semifinals by Germany at home in Belo Horizonte four years ago.
It was a match that lived up to the hype befitting two of the top three teams in the world according to FIFA’s rankings, complete with plenty of scoring chances, fancy passes, tricky dribbles and on Belgium’s end at least, strong goalkeeping.
Martinez made two changes to his starting XI, rewarding Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli for their star turns against Japan and switching to a 3-4-3 formation that pushed De Bruyne forward with Fellaini and Axel Witsel working in tandem in defensive midfield.
Both proved pivotal figures, with Chadli doing tireless work on the left side of the pitch to neutralize Fagner, while any wonder about Fellaini’s introduction to the fray was quickly answered in the seventh minute when Neymar was on the receiving end of a forearm to the back of his head as he tried to dribble away from Fellaini.
Brazil nearly scored in the eighth minute off a corner that Miranda flicked into the six-yard area, where Thiago Silva re-directed it with his thigh off the left post before Courtois grabbed the ball. Some slapstick Belgium defending in the penalty area gave the Selecao another corner in the 10th minute, and Paulinho should have done better with his unmarked volley from eight yards, which was weakly knocked forward and cleared.
The Red Devils, though, would grab the lead against the run of play through an own goal by Fernandinho, who was a poor replacement for the suspended Casemiro in front of Brazil’s back four. Vincent Kompany flashed in front of the left post to flick Chadli’s corner goal-bound, and it pinged off Fernandinho’s right shoulder and past Alisson, extending the record for own goals at this World Cup with 11.
Brazil immediately went to work in hunting an equalizer, constantly letting Neymar probe the right side of Belgium’s back line, with Thomas Meunier essentially serving as a fourth defender. Courtois punched out a dangerous cross from the right and then got down to make a save when Gabriel Jesus had the ball in a dangerous area.
Coutinho hit a hard low drive right at Courtois in the 20th minute, but Marcelo — fully healthy after dealing with back spasms the previous match — did well to break up a Belgium scoring chance in which Meunier tried to pick out Lukaku with a cross from the right after Hazard carried the ball to the top of the penalty area and slotted.
Lukaku nutmegged Miranda, but Thiago Silva sliced it out for a corner before he could get back on the ball. Courtois again got down to make another save, this time on a shot by Marcelo, and Belgium again immediately flew back on the counter, with Silva making a vital clearance of a cross by De Bruyne trying to pick out Fellaini from the left.
Both teams were leaving huge gaps of space in the midfield as the play went from one end to the other.
Brazil earned a corner kick on the half-hour when Neymar’s shot was deflected over the line but Belgium cleared the line and again launched another counterattack as Lukaku, dropping deep to be a safety valve, picked up the headed clearance from Fellaini and carried the ball through his own half, taking on and rounding Fernandinho before laying it off to De Bruyne on the right.
With Meunier outside De Bruyne, Marcelo could not commit to shutting down De Bruyne, and the Manchester City attacking midfielder unleashed a vicious low drive from 20 yards inside the left corner to make it 2-0.
Jesus could have done better with an unmarked header from 10 yards in the 36th minute as he planted Marcelo’s cross wide of the right post. Courtois punched away a deflection by Meunier after a cross by Marcelo, and then the keeper had his best save of the match to this point, parrying a curling drive by Philippe Coutinho as he tried to pick out the right corner from distance like he did versus Switzerland.
Belgium had a chance to go up three in the 41st minute when De Bruyne earned a free kick from 25 yards on the left, and he lashed a right-footed shot Alisson was forced to punch over the bar for a corner. Chadli again played it low and short from the left, and Alisson was alert to catch Kompany’s backheel flick from the six-yard box.
Tite introduced Roberto Firmino at the start of the second half, sacrificing Willian while shifting Jesus to the right.
Miranda did well to prevent Lukaku from getting a shot on target in the 49th minute, snuffing out a counter that started at the other end where Kompany dispossessed Neymar on the top right elbow of the penalty area.
Firmino didn’t get enough of his foot on a whipped-in cross by Marcelo in the 51st minute, sending it just wide of the right post. Marcelo continued attempting to corkscrew Meunier into the ground on the left, twisting and turning to find the half-foot of space needed to cross balls.
In the 53rd minute, Neymar took a dive in the penalty area trying to draw a foul on Fellaini, but referee Milorad Mazic did not issue a yellow card.
Courtois shut down Jesus on the right side in the 55th minute, but the Selecao continued to pile on the pressure — a corner here, a nutmeg by Jesus there and a poor challenge by Kompany following that nutmeg that VAR ruled was not worthy of a penalty as it backed Mazic’s call for a goal kick.
Douglas Costa entered for Jesus in the 58th minute, with Brazil continuing to pour forward in numbers and Belgium repelling at all costs. The Red Devils were showing signs of fatigue from the constant defense but not breaking as the Selecao were failing to find that final touch to ignite their comeback.
Chadli launched a counterattack in the 62nd minute, playing it laterally to De Bruyne to trigger a 3-on-2 flanked by Hazard and Lukaku. De Bruyne opted for Hazard, whose shot across goal fizzed wide of the right post with Lukaku begging near it.
Brazil again launched forward, with Courtois getting his big right hand on Douglas Costa’s cross-turned-shot, and Paulinho could not respond fast enough to poke the rebound by him in the 63rd minute.
Meunier took a professional yellow card in the 71st minute cutting down Neymar as he tried to dance through the middle of the park, eliminating himself from the semifinal with his second booking of the tournament. Costa had a go from 25 yards, but it lacked the fizz to trouble Courtois as he comfortably dove and stopped it.
Hazard was steamrolled by Fagner in the 72nd minute, causing a brief stoppage, and Augusto was Tite’s final roll of the dice as Paulinho made way. Costa ripped a shot from the right in the 75th minute Courtois parried, and Neymar’s rebound was blocked before it could get on target.
Augusto, though, would get the long-awaited breakthrough in the 76th minute, ghosting between Vertonghen and Kompany and meeting Coutinho’s cross from the left with a header from eight yards inside the right post past a diving Courtois.
The final quarter-hour was perhaps the most electric of this tournament, the partisan Selecao crowd in full throat trying to will their team to level the contest. Brazil poured forward desperate for the equalizer with Belgium showing the same urgency in racing to counter but fizzling before the final act of the move with a chance to see off the match.
Firmino performed an excellent stab and turn of the ball off a pass from Neymar in the 78th minute, going just high and wide of the upper left corner. Augusto should have leveled the match on 80 minutes, picking out the lower left corner but going agonizingly wide from the top of the penalty area with Courtois stranded and simply hoping for the best.
Martinez finally made his first switch in the 83rd minute, with Thomas Vermaelen replacing an exhausted Chadli. Brazil flubbed another counter in the 84th when Coutinho sliced wide of the right post after an excellent run down the left and layoff by Neymar.
Belgium made its second switch in the 87th minute as Lukaku made way for Youri Tielemans, with Hazard moving into the advanced role. Neymar tried to turn to the outside on Toby Alderweireld, but his first touch was too heavy.
Neymar had a penalty shout in the first minute of stoppage time after Meunier made contact with him as he tried to reach Coutinho’s ball over the top, but Mazic was unsympathetic as perhaps the exaggerations of the first four matches had cost Neymar the benefit of the doubt.
Coutinho had a shot at the top of the box blocked, and then Hazard did yeoman’s work in keeping possession in his own half and juking past two defenders into Brazil’s half before drawing a foul on Miranda to further wind down the clock.
Courtois then came up with his second great save, preserving a win and giving a talented Belgium side the legacy-defining victory it had been seeking in nearly a decade’s worth of major tournaments.