For the second World Cup in succession, Belgium has swept through the group stage with three wins and stylish football.
Now the highly regarded team needs to prove it has more substance than it did four years ago, when the Red Devils went out at the quarterfinal stage. There is so much hype surrounding this Belgium side, anything but a semifinal appearance – matching the nation’s best achievement in 1986 – will be deemed a disappointment.
Barring group winner Belgium’s route to the last eight this time is Japan; they meet Monday in Rostov-on-Don.
Japan emerged against most expectations from a tricky group containing Colombia, Poland and Senegal – three sides with greater firepower. The manner of Japan’s qualification will probably not send waves of fear into a Belgium squad which is as technically gifted as it is deep.
Belgium averaged three goals per game, and looked flashy even when playing mostly reserves against England in winning the last group game.
The Japanese only just squeezed through, taking a route no team has ever taken out of a World Cup group. Japan and Senegal finished with four points each, had the same goal differential, scored the same number of goals and even drew 2-2, sending it to a tiebreaker being used at the World Cup for the first time: disciplinary record.
Japan only advanced because it received fewer yellow cards than Senegal. Now it’s up against arguably the most well-balanced and complete side in the competition.
Belgium has one of the world’s best goalkeepers in Thibaut Courtois – who has yet to make the same blunders befalling other big-name goalies here in Russia – a superb orchestrator of attacks in the wonderfully gifted Eden Hazard and a lethal finisher in striker Romelu Lukaku.
Despite being only 25 years old, the powerfully-built Lukaku already has 40 international goals – including four so far in Russia. This puts him level with Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo, and one behind England striker Harry Kane in the race to finish top scorer at the World Cup.
Lukaku will look to add to his group-stage tally of four goals against a Japan defense conceding more than a goal per game. Japan may well have conceded more than four goals overall, but played almost the entire game with an extra man in a 2-1 win against Colombia, which had a player sent off in the third minute.
Lukaku has even more reason to be confident, considering the quality of service he can expect from Hazard, midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and wide forward Dries Mertens.
The attacking trio of Mertens-Lukaku-Hazard is one of the most eye-catching around. Lukaku has made their job easier by improving his movement off the ball, too, since he has a tendency to be too static at times when just waiting inside the penalty area.
Japan coach Akira Nishino has his work cut out containing Belgium’s free-flowing attacks. Even if he manages to keep Hazard quiet, there are still multiple threats.
De Bruyne has proved to be an exquisite passer with Premier League champion Manchester City, and is especially dangerous with long-range passes and crosses. Mertens has a more unpredictable style of play, but has mesmerizingly quick feet, an even quicker brain and – despite his diminutive size – he is hard to knock off the ball.
Mertens’ modest tally of 15 goals in 72 games for Belgium does not do justice to his finishing ability. When the mood takes him, Mertens is utterly ruthless in front of goal and he has netted 56 goals overall in the past two seasons with Napoli in Italy’s Serie A.
Given the fragility of Japan’s defense, Nishino may have no choice but to try and take the game to Belgium. This could produce a high-scoring contest.
Japan also has talented and experienced attacking players in former Manchester United forward Shinji Kagawa and the hugely popular Keisuke Honda.
Kagawa, who has 31 international goals, is likely to play as a playmaker behind the lone striker in Nishino’s favored 4-2-3-1 formation.
Honda, who has netted 37 times for Japan, is no longer a regular, but the 32-year-old former AC Milan player remains dangerous on free kicks. Attack-minded fullback Hiroki Sakai also adds another dimension with his marauding runs down the right flank.
Nishino must decide between Yoshinori Muto and Yuya Osako as his lone striker. After starting the first two games, and coming on early in the second half against Poland, Osako is favored to start.
Follow Jerome Pugmire on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jeromepugmire .
More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup .