After an uneventful first 45 minutes, Belgium and Japan put together the best half of soccer in what has already been an extremely entertaining World Cup. Belgium generated more dangerous chances and generally looked like the better team throughout the first half, but it was a cagey affair and it seemed likely that the game would be decided by one goal, or worse, by penalty kicks. However, Japan turned the game on its head immediately after halftime. In the 48th minute, Genki Haraguchi got free on the right after a Belgium turnover and beat Thibault Courtois to the far post with a smartly placed shot.
Four minutes later, Shinji Kagawa laid a ball off for winger Takashi Inui, and he used the space he was given to smash a perfect knuckleball into the corner past a flailing Courtois.
For the first time in the tournament, Belgium were behind, and they needed to rally in a serious way to overcome a Japan side that looked more lively than anyone expected. Rather than wilt and fulfill the destiny of every other Robert Martinez-led team, Belgium took over the game immediately. Japan were clearly not comfortable packing it in and defending for 40 minutes, and their admirable (if not suicidal) desire to seek out a third ultimately cost them. In the 69th minute, Jan Vertonghen scored on what was clearly an attempt to play the ball into the box that caught Eiji Kawashima flat-footed.
Belgium then became even more aggressive in pursuit of an equalizer, which Marouane Fellaini found just five minutes later.
Japan remained optimistic in the attacking third, and they forced Courtois to dive for a few saves. A winner really did seem possible for either side, and a devilish Keisuke Honda free kick nearly won the game for Japan. But after Courtois snagged a corner kick then sprung Kevin De Bruyne on the counterattack, Romelu Lukaku’s lungbusting run and inspired dummy set the table for an easy and 94th minute winner for Nacer Chadli. I can’t think of a better or more dramatic way to win an elimination game.
Belgium now have to play Brazil, who kicked ass in their game against Mexico today. Even if they lose, they will have completed one of the most iconic World Cup comebacks in recent memory, and moments like this mean everything. Japan can also leave with their heads held high, though scoring two goals on Belgium (including one of the best goals of the tournament) is a pittance compared to the prospect of winning their first-ever knockout round game and getting to take a swing at the World Cup favorite.