A tactical change proved decisive as Kevin De Bruyne hit the winner that sent five-time champions Brazil sensationally crashing out on Wednesday and kept underdogs Belgium’s World Cup hopes alive.
As Brazil became the last South American country to exit the tournament before the semi-finals, Roberto Martinez’s Belgium ended a 32-year wait to reach the final four.
The Red Devils will now play France, who eliminated Uruguay 2-0 earlier in the day, in an enticing semi-final between the European neighbours.
“When you play Brazil you need a tactical advantage,” explained Martinez.
“Brazil bring that psychological barrier, they’ve won five World Cups. We had to be brave tactically.
“But today wasn’t about the tactics, it was about the execution of those tactics. If you execute it like the players did, it makes it difficult for them.”
Although Martinez was credited with shifting the tactics that meant Belgium posed a threat to Neymar’s Brazil throughout an exhilarating quarter-final in Kazan, his players, and De Bruyne in particular, rose to the challenge magnificently.
“It was a test of character, and I think we did really well,” said De Bruyne, who started on the right side of a three-pronged attack alongside centre-forward Romelu Lukaku and playmaker Eden Hazard.
Usually deployed in a more central role in the 3-4-2-1 used by Martinez in the last-gasp 3-2 win over Japan in the last 16, De Bruyne responded positively when the wily Spanish coach called for changes.
“I don’t care where I play. Wherever I play, I have to contribute,” De Bruyne said.
“I did what I had to do, making sure the team is calm in difficult situations. Making sure we relax on the ball and not take too many risks.
“Sometimes we try to go too quick, but I try to manage the team in any way I can. And I will be the first to fight till the last minutes and I hope my teammates follow my example.”
Martinez’s switch to a 3-4-3 was a masterstroke, but De Bruyne’s man-of-the-match award did not come for nothing.
After taking a shock 13th-minute lead when Hazard’s curling corner came off Fernandinho’s arm, it was the Brazilian’s Manchester City teammate De Bruyne who struck hardest.
A devastating counter-attack launched by Manchester United striker Lukaku caused panic, leaving De Bruyne in space and with time to send a powerful drive past Alisson on 31 minutes.
In the end, it proved decisive.
Although Brazil fought their way back into the match thanks to Renato Augusto’s 76th-minute header, they paid the price for missing late chances.
It was the fourth successive World Cup that Brazil’s involvement was ended by a European side, four years after a humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany in the semi-finals.
Belgium will now meet Didier Deschamps’ France, and De Bruyne added:
“It will be a different match. Now we have the time so see how we’re going to approach it.
“It’s the semi-finals, it will be extraordinary. But the whole world will be watching us.
“This only happens once or twice in your career as a footballer. We’ll do what we can to win it.”
© Agence France-Presse