A Nacer Chadli strike with 20 seconds left in stoppage time set up a quarter-final date for Belgium with Brazil, after the Red Devils overcame a two-goal deficit against a Japanese side who fought tooth and nail in Rostov.
Goals for Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Iniu within six minutes of each other in the second half suggested that perhaps the biggest upset of the World Cup yet was on the cards, but Belgium showed their character by fighting back with three goals in the last 25 minutes to claim the win.
It was a hugely demoralizing climax to the game for Japan, who only qualified for the round of 16 by virtue of having received fewer yellow cards than Senegal, the team they finished deadlocked with in Group H.
The game’s five second-half goals came in contrast to a first half in which neither side created any clear-cut chances. Japan started the brighter of the two sides, with Shinji Kagawa impressive as the creative fulcrum behind Yuya Osako. As the first stanza wore on, however, Belgium appeared to sharpen their attack. Romelu Lukaku had a good chance on 20 minutes, swiveling in the box to let a shot fly past Kawashima’s goalpost.
Lukaku had another chance to tie Harry Kane as the tournament’s top scorer but he was denied his fifth goal in Russia, fluffing a chance from five yards after being found by a Dries Mertens cross.
Eden Hazard almost found the perfect riposte moments later, his 20-yard shot cannoning back off Kawashima’s post but it was Japan who would hit the net next after Inui slammed the ball home outside the box following a mix-up between the Belgian central defenders.
Kagawa controlled a lofted ball excellently on his chest before laying the ball off to Inui and with the Belgian defenders flat-footed, he sent his effort to Courtois’ left, giving the Chelsea ‘keeper no chance.
At 2-0 with around 30 minutes to go it was starting to look as though this might be Japan’s night especially when Lukaku missed a gilt-edged chance on 64 minutes, glancing a header wide when it seemed easier to score.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez reinforced his attack with substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli on 64 minutes and they were given a lifeline when Vertonghen, making up for an earlier error, lofted a header over Karashima following some last-gasp Japanese defending.
The European side were appearing much more dangerous, particularly with the totemic influence of Fellaini as the focal point of the Belgian aerial bombardment, and the Manchester United man found his side’s equalizer, heading in a cross from Hazard.
Martinez’s masterstroke of substitutions was concluded when Chadli found the winner late in stoppage time following good work from De Bruyne and Lukaku, sending the Belgium fans in Rostov-on-Don into raptures and their nation into a mouth-watering quarter-final date with Neymar and Brazil.