The 2018 World Cup winner will now definitely hail from Europe after the Rest of the World’s sole remaining representatives, Brazil, were dumped out at the quarter-final stage by Belgium on Friday night.
Roberto Martinez reverted to a back four for the heavyweight clash in Kazan, with Dries Mertens dropping to the bench to allow Marouane Fellaini to form a road block with Axel Witsel in the middle of the park.
This revamped system worked from the off, with Belgium scintillating in the first-half while playing on the counter-attack.
However, it was Brazil who came closest to first snatching the lead as Thiago Silva inadvertently shinned a close-range effort against the post.
Belgium then nudged themselves in front after just 13 minutes when Vincent Kompany got the faintest touch on a near-post corner that then ricocheted in off Fernandinho’s forearm…
Belgium’s attacking trio of Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne were a constant threat to the Brazilian back line with their fluid movement, smart interplay and devastating pace.
Just after the half-hour mark, Belgium doubled their lead, this time courtesy of a magnificent finish from De Bruyne who arrowed the ball in past Alisson after some world class one-man build-up play from Lukaku.
After the break, Brazil improved although Neymar continue to toil in attack, flitting hither and thither while referee Milorad Mazic gave no credence to his feeble diving.
Brazil were then somewhat unlucky not to get a penalty after Gabriel Jesus was clumsily felled in the box by Kompany after a superb dribble.
However, with the ball running out of play, the officials, via a VAR check, decided against the spot-kick.
The goal that Brazil’s second-half pressure deserved would eventually come on 76 minutes, with substitute Renato Augusto heading home superbly from Philippe Coutinho’s delicate lobbed pass.
While Brazil continued to push for the equaliser, Hazard worked tirelessly to hold the ball up for the Belgians, tormenting his opponents ’til the end.
Late on, Coutinho missed a great chance to make it 2-2, only to blast well wide after fine play from Neymar.
Neymar himself was then denied in stoppage time when Thibaut Courtois stretched out a telescopic arm to pat his 20-yard curler over the crossbar.
The cracking contest would eventually end 2-1 to Belgium, with their so-called ‘Golden Generation’ finally coming of age on the world stage.
As for Brazil, their adventure has come to yet another premature halt, with Neymar’s theatrics sadly overshadowing his talent and Gabriel Jesus failing to justify his continual selection ahead of Roberto Firmino.
Belgium now face France in what should be a fabulous semi-final clash next Tuesday, with Martinez’s No. 2, Thierry Henry, set to face a few old friends.
Meanwhile, Russia 2018 becomes the first World Cup ever where at least one of Brazil, Germany and/or Argentina haven’t made it into the last four.
What a thoroughly entertaining tournament this is turning out to be!