In a match that ended in a dramatic and suspenseful period of extra time, Belgium managed to beat the USA and progress to the quarter-final on Tuesday.
The extra 30 minutes, needed because regular playing time had ended at 0-0, looked open-ended, with the Americans refusing to give up despite being 2-0 behind at one point.
But looked at from a wider perspective, it had been clear for a while that Belgium were most likely to win. Although they have sometimes been condemned as relatively inexperienced on the big stage, they showed character and maturity when it really mattered.
For a long time, especially during the second half, it looked as if Belgium’s goal was imminent. Dominating possession and constantly managing to create chances through clever interplay between Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and later, when he came on, Kevin Mirallas, the Rode Duivels rarely gave the USA any space to breathe.
In the end, it came to extra time before one of Belgium’s many creative midfielders and attackers managed to find the net. After an intelligent run from deep and subsequent pass from Romelu Lukaku, who had just come on and was still fresh, it was De Bruyne who slotted it past American goalkeeper Tim Howard. Not long later, Lukaku himself made it 2-0.
While Howard had seemed, until then, like an unmovable object, it was long clear that the Americans were largely worn out, unable to cope with the pressure the Belgians were putting on them, ball after ball and run after run.
Like a creeping virus, Belgium were slowly but surely putting their stranglehold on the USA, delaying the finish time and again but never putting it out of sight.
Similar scenarios had transpired during Belgium’s group-stage campaign. Against Algeria, the Rode Duivels’ very first match of the tournament, it wasn’t until the dying minutes when the opposition’s defensive wall was finally broken. Against Russia and South Korea, Belgium scored the only and winning goal while nearly being able to hear the final whistle.
Belgium like to keep it late, and that seems to be part of their strategy. Of course, a goal scored earlier in the match would be welcomed by manager Marc Wilmots, but the Rode Duivels’ first priority is always to avoid risk while tiring the opposition out.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they make use of a defensive outset. Although the security added by defensive giants such as Vincent Kompany surely helps, it mainly requires a high work rate and a high level of discipline by the midfield in particular.
With Belgium being creative and fluid up front, then, a goal simply becomes inevitable. At one point, the likes of Hazard and De Bruyne will get what they have been carefully looking for all match long.
Belgium’s squad might be inexperienced when it comes to the big stage, but it is not immature. As it did against Algeria, Russia and South Korea, it showed character and spirit against a highly motivated USA, kept up during a thrilling period of extra time.
It takes patience to win matches the way Belgium are winning their matches, and like a predator slowly tracking the movements of its prey, ready to strike at exactly the right moment, the Rode Duivels have plenty of it.