Belgium made good on their gameplan and it has taken them within two games of being World Cup winners

After all that, there was no need for Belgium to be so coy. Roberto Martnez and his team had talked their way into this quarter-final like underdogs, twirling in deference to the extent that it seemed fair to wonder whether they might at least simulate a little more swagger. But who needs to strut around when they can play some of the most dynamic, coruscating counterattacking international football in years, and who needs to parade on to the pitch when they have prepared to effect the kind of victory that might define a generations work?

They lined up with a plan and it has taken them to within two matches of a title that would make good every prediction, every breathless think piece, every confident statement about Europes putative emerging force of the decade. Now Belgium, for all their false dawns, have at last found their level; few could have foreseen the identity of the man to take them there but this was a triumph too for Martnez, whose prolixity can frustrate but who set up his team with perfect clarity and will deserve the praise aimed his way.

On the eve of this game Romelu Lukaku, before his manager arrived to muse on psychological barriers and the burden of never having won a World Cup, had puffed out his cheeks and made a show of thinking very hard about any weaknesses Brazil held. It turned out he could not conjure any up, although he did drop in that three of the four starting Brazil defenders were vastly experienced and would require ingenuity to pick apart.

A clue to Belgiums intentions lay in what Lukaku did not say. His mystery fourth man was Fagner, the seven-times-capped deputy to Dani Alves, who had eventually coped with Mexicos threat but had like the rest of his teammates yet to be really tested in this tournament.

Joy
Joy for Romelu Lukaku and his Belgium team-mates. Photograph: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

Was there a glitch in Tites tightly drilled unit that might unbalance the collective and had Belgium, so tentative when handed previous chances to achieve the epochal, worked out how to go for the throat? It was immediately clear that Martnez felt Brazil could be pulled around in the middle and eviscerated from wide; Lukaku had fun against Miranda from his new right-sided perch as soon as the whistle blew although their main adversary was the blizzard of interchanges and positional swaps the entire Belgian front three contrived.

It turned out Belgium could select from several soft spots and they found one in an unexpected place. Fernandinhos inclusion for the suspended Casemiro had been dismissed as inconsequential; what a metronomic presence he has been, after all, as the safety catch in Manchester Citys midfield, and what an apt example he was of the riches Tite described on Thursday when name-checking the quality on his bench. Casemiro is yet to suffer the kind of glitch that beset Fernandinho from Hazards corner, though, and after that Belgium could show they knew exactly how to draw blood.

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Now they could attack in tides. Fagner had little answer to Eden Hazards slaloms, and particularly the runners he sent scurrying behind after dragging the full-back inside, but in truth Brazils defence fell apart en masse. It was stupendous stuff in the first half from Belgium, who had seemingly put power before guile in selecting Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli but found that such an imposing base allowed their front three to help themselves.

Lukaku may never have played a better half than the opening 45 minutes. If the dummy that set Chadli free to score against Japan had brought him close to the point of maximum expression then at times he was operating on a different canvas here. There was no barging him off the ball and barely any keeping pace; his suite contained so much more, though, and the pass that allowed De Bruyne to double the lead was a masterpiece of timing and poise.

De Bruyne whose own role at the Etihad equates more to a power generator did the rest and at this point Lukakus press conference pontification seemed like the affectation of a man who knew more than everyone else.

As it turned out, everyone had to rein themselves in during the second half, panicked clearances the order as Brazil pressed, scored and would have rendered all that remarkable work mere levity had Thibaut Courtois not extended those fingertips at the last. But Belgium, who had huddled by the dugout as Martnez dealt his final pre-match instructions, do not need treating lightly now; when they emerge for their semi-final with France on Tuesday, a little strut might just go with the territory.

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