Saint Petersburg (AFP) – Roberto Martinez has emphatically silenced those who doubted whether he was the right man to lead Belgium’s “golden generation” in their bid for World Cup glory following his struggles with Premier League club Everton.
Belgium are in the last four for just the second time in their history, and will meet France in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday after claiming their biggest-ever World Cup scalp by beating Brazil 2-1 in the quarter-finals.
In going beyond the last eight, Martinez has already succeeded where his predecessor Marc Wilmots failed, following quarter-final defeats to Argentina four years ago and in shock fashion to Wales at Euro 2016.
However, it is the manner in which Martinez has masterminded that route to the semis that has vindicated the Belgian federation’s decision to hire a manager seen as damaged goods in 2016 after three largely unsuccessful seasons at Goodison Park.
A side boasting some of the Premier League’s finest talents in Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku were heading for another embarrassing early exit when trailing 2-0 to Japan in the last 16.
– Flexible Fellaini –
But Martinez’s substitutions saved the day. Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli came off the bench to help complete a stunning three-goal turnaround in the final 21 minutes.
Fellaini’s physical presence had been used as a battering ram against the Japanese as he headed home a wonderful Hazard cross. But despite retaining his place against Brazil, Fellaini performed a very different role.
The Manchester United midfielder acted as an extra shield in front of the defence, freeing up De Bruyne to play much further forward.
In an old tactic from their time together at Everton, Lukaku also moved to the right of the attack and it was from his lung-bursting run that De Bruyne drilled Belgium into a 2-0 first-half lead.
“I think when you play Brazil you have to get a tactical advantage,” said a beaming Martinez afterwards. “It was a difficult tactical plan and the way they believed it was incredible.”
So impressive was Martinez’s tactical set-up to send the five-time champions home that the first question in his post-match press conference was whether he would be interested in the vacant post as Spain boss.
Martinez downplayed that speculation but, as a Spaniard, his background as neither a native French nor Flemish speaker has also removed one traditional barrier to Belgian success for a country divided down linguistic lines. Instead, the whole squad converse in English.
“I’ve got no background in all the culture and diversity in Belgium,” Martinez said earlier in the tournament. “I’m making all my decisions based on football.”
Another of Martinez’s decisions from early in his reign could also give Belgium an extra edge for Tuesday’s semi-final, with France’s all-time top goalscorer, Thierry Henry, sat alongside him on the bench.
Henry was part of France’s own golden generation that won the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championship two years later.
“He’s someone who has been in the situation of having to develop a mentality in a team of chasing the dream of winning something special for his country,” said Martinez when asked what Henry would bring as his assistant.
Thanks to Martinez’s tactical flexibility, that dream is now just two games away.
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