Belgium, France reach World Cup semifinals

Only European teams remain in contention

The Associated Press

Axel Witsel celebrates Friday after Belgium defeated Brazil 2-1 in a World Cup quarterfinal in Kazan, Russia.

Axel Witsel celebrates Friday after Belgium defeated Brazil 2-1 in a World Cup quarterfinal in Kazan, Russia.

AP photo

KAZAN, Russia — Neymar used Brazil’s famed yellow jersey to shield his anguish. The Belgians, clad in red and dancing in a celebratory circle nearby, couldn’t hide their relief.

Belgium reached the World Cup semifinals for the first time in 32 years, holding off five-time champion Brazil 2-1 Friday in one of the country’s greatest soccer feats and assured that this year champion will be from Europe.

“We’ve achieved something that is really beautiful,” said Kevin De Bruyne, who scored Belgium’s second goal, “and it’s not easy.”

Belgium eliminated Brazil by successfully fusing the attacking potency of De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku with the creativity of Eden Hazard and the goalkeeping exploits of Thibaut Courtois. Plus an own-goal from Brazil.

It all adds up to a semifinal match against France on Tuesday in St. Petersburg.

“Just treasure it and pass it down in the generations,” Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said, still seemingly in awe of what his team achieved at the Kazan Arena.

Belgium took the lead after a slice of good fortune involving a pair of Manchester City teammates who were on opposing sides. Brazil midfielder Fernandinho’s trailing right arm inadvertently helped Belgium captain Vincent Kompany’s header land in his own net in the 13th minute.

De Bruyne then completed a counterattack launched by Lukaku to double the lead in the 31st minute.

As Belgium lost cohesiveness in the second half and Brazil’s changes stirred the team, substitute Renato Augusto reduced the deficit in the 76th with a header. But it was too late for Brazil to muster an equalizer as Courtois thwarted several efforts to force the game into extra time.

While Belgium’s golden generation is finally flourishing, Neymar is leading Brazil home after failing to live up to the expectations that come with being soccer’s most expensive player. Crouching on the field, he pulled his shirt over his face while Belgium exalted in victory.

Humiliated 7-1 by Germany in the semifinals fours year ago on home soil with Neymar out injured, Brazil didn’t even get that far this time. Just like defending champion Germany and Argentina before them, the Kazan Arena is where Brazil’s World Cup challenge ended.

“Randomness happened and it was cruel to us,” Brazil coach Tite said. “It was hard to swallow.”

Especially after Brazil conceded only one goal in the previous four games in Russia. But the defense was breached after 13 minutes in Tatarstan. Fernandinho’s own-goal ensured for the first time since March 2017 that Brazil was trailing in a competitive match. Unlike then — an eventual 4-1 victory over Uruguay — there was no comeback.

France 2, Uruguay 0

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — A shot that flew directly at the hands of the opposing goalkeeper turned into a World Cup goal for Antoine Griezmann.

The France striker scored the second goal in his team’s 2-0 quarterfinal victory over Uruguay on Friday, sending a seemingly easy-to-save shot at a waiting Fernando Muslera. But the ball hit the keeper on the palms, bounced off and looped over his head and into the net.

Griezmann didn’t celebrate what was his third goal of the tournament.

“I was playing against a lot of friends,” said Griezmann, who is teammates with Uruguay defenders Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez at Atletico Madrid, “so I think it was normal not to celebrate.”

Raphael Varane gave France the lead with a header in the 40th minute. Griezmann sent in a free kick from the right side and Varane raced across the area. He got his head to the ball and sent it into the far corner behind Muslera.

Griezmann scored his goal, which was similar to the one scored by Real Madrid forward Gareth Bale against Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius in the Champions League final, in the 61st minute.

“We all saw that it was not a very common goal, but Muslera has been a very important pillar for all this process and through all our work on our way up to here, so I’m not going to wash my hands putting any responsibility on my players,” Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez said. “This is the kind of thing that I will discuss with the players in the locker room.”

Looking ahead

MOSCOW — What to watch for in Saturday’s matchups in the World Cup quarterfinals:

Who’s weak?

England coach Gareth Southgate basically picked his team’s path toward the semifinals by sending out a squad of reserves that lost to Belgium in their last match of the group round, when both sides had already qualified for the knockout stage. His reasoning: No one wants to play teams like Brazil or France until they have to. His insinuation: Teams like Sweden are weaker. Southgate may not have meant it as a slight and has since called Sweden “bloody difficult.” But when Sweden coach Janne Andersson was asked about it, he curtly suggested any doubters ask Sweden’s beaten opponents how tough the Swedes are to play. If England wins Saturday’s first quarterfinal in Samara, expect Southgate to be further hailed for his foresight. If Sweden wins, Southgate’s strategy may get a rougher review.

Russia’s run

The hosts came into the tournament ranked 70th in the world. Even after drawing a favorable group, expectations were minimal. Advancing to the knockout stage was deemed success enough by some. Then goalkeeper and captain Igor Akinfeev stuck out his left foot and stopped Spain’s final kick of a penalty shootout in the round of 16, and suddenly Russia had pulled off one of the bigger upsets in World Cup history. Croatia has one of the most balanced teams in the tournament , but the Russians believe their quarterfinal in Sochi is winnable. If that happens, Russia would be playing a semifinal — maybe even the final — in Moscow’s main stadium, and a country where soccer usually takes a distant back seat to hockey could go bonkers.

New territory

England won the World Cup one time, back in 1966. Sweden lost the final at home to Brazil in ‘58. Those are the only times any of the four teams playing Saturday has even made it to a World Cup final, but one of them will be playing at the Luzhniki Stadium on July 15 against 1998 champion France or Belgium.

Axel Witsel celebrates Friday after Belgium defeated Brazil 2-1 in a World Cup quarterfinal in Kazan, Russia. Witsel celebrates Friday after Belgium defeated Brazil 2-1 in a World Cup quarterfinal in Kazan, Russia. AP photo
Only European teams remain in contention

The Associated Press

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