Belgium's PSG defender Meunier suspended for semi-final, but warns teammates they face 'a really, really good team'
After Brazil 'miracle', Belgium ready for 'even tougher' World Cup assignment against France
They nullified Neymar, now they must try and stop Kylian Mbappe.
Belgium set up a World Cup semi-final clash with France courtesy of a hard-fought 2-1 victory over five-time champions Brazil in Kazan on Friday night.
Defender Thomas Meunier called it “a miracle”, but it was nothing of the sort.
It was the kind of performance, the type of triumph, that teams with genuine ambition of being crowned the world’s best must produce. And they produced it when it mattered most.
Tite, the Brazil manager, suggested the two teams were equal and his side merely less efficient with the ball in front of goal.
The statistics concur with the latter part of his statement at least: Brazil had three times as many shots at Thibault Courtois’s goal and five times as many shots blocked.
Belgium hit the target just three times although did not score their opening goal, Fernandinho turning into his own net from a 13th minute corner.
When Kevin de Bruyne rifled past Alisson 18 minutes later after a scintillating swift counter-attack, Brazil looked rocked and ready to fold like a deckchair on Copacabana beach.
Yet, credit to the South Americans, they rallied, racking up the shots and playing their part in another enthralling game at this World Cup.
Substitute Renato Augusto pulled one back with 14 minutes to go, but the equaliser was prevented through a combination of solid defending and safe hands from Courtois.
“This tournament, there is a lot of pressure on us,” said centre-half Toby Alderweireld. “We want to achieve big things.
"This was the first big country we’ve played against, so the pressure was big, but I think we did everything on the pitch, which was enough.
"Our first half was better than the second half. In the second half they put so much pressure on us. It was only defend, defend, defend.”
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The result means Belgium will contest a semi-final for the first time since 1986 when they face France on Tuesday in Saint Petersburg.
Alderweireld, who plays alongside French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris at Tottenham Hotspur, said beating the team his manager Roberto Martinez described as “the best team at the tournament” can give them belief.
“I think we can be confident,” he said. “But [France] are a brilliant team. They have shown in one or two of their performances what they can do. A very tough opponent.
"We will have to be at our best to beat them, but it will be an unbelievable game and I look forward to it. With Eden [Hazard] and Romelu [Lukaku], and Kevin [De Bruyne] behind them, those three can hurt any team.”
Meunier, who plays his domestic football at Paris Saint-Germain, knows Neymar only too well and helped keep the world’s most expensive player quiet. Save for an added time effort that was clawed away by Courtois, the 26-year-old forward rarely threatened.
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“I think we can congratulate ourselves for the game that we played defensively. We were so organised collectively. I always had help from Marouane Fellaini, from Toby Alderweireld, We were really focused on [Neymar], on Coutinho, on Marcelo, and we really did a wonderful job. It’s really a miracle what we have done,” Meunier said.
Martinez, who called himself “the proudest man on earth” after watching his players complete “a very tough tactical assignment”, who has only suffered one defeat in 25 matches since taking the Belgium job in 2016.
“I've never lost a game on the tactics board,” he added. “It's the execution that matters and the execution was magnificent.”
Meunier will miss the semi-final after picking up a second booking. The PSG defender knows domestic teammate Mbappe only too well and said another big performance from his teammates will be required for them to reach the final.
“I hope we will make another miracle against France,” he said “They have a really, really good team, with a good balance, defensively, offensively.
"I think it will be even tougher than against Brazil, so we just have to prepare professionally and see what happens.”