Eden Hazard praised Belgium’s fighting spirit after the Red Devils came from two goals down to beat Japan 3-2 and advance to a World Cup quarter-final showdown against Brazil.
“We are just so happy to go through to the quarter-finals,” said Belgium’s captain Hazard, who was the man-of-the-match in Rostov.
“Things went wrong at the start of the second half and both (Japan) goals were avoidable, but the reaction we showed was great.”
Nacer Chadli’s superbly worked goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time was the final act of an epic last-16 battle.
Belgium becomes the first team in 48 years to successfully overturn a 2-0 deficit in a World Cup knockout game.
Belgium will face five-time champions Brazil in Kazan on Friday after scoring three second-half goals without reply to break Japan’s dogged resistance.
Goals by Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui in four devastating minutes had put Japan 2-0 up early in the second half to leave Belgium reeling.
However, the Red Devils responded with quick goals of their own as Jan Vertonghen, at fault for Haraguchi’s goal, and Marouane Fellaini both scored headers before Chadli’s dramatic winner in Rostov.
“It was a tragedy, but I have to accept the defeat as a fact, but I feel devastated and very disappointed,” said Japan coach Akira Nishino.
“I felt there wasn’t in it between the teams, maybe it was my decisions as a coach and we couldn’t keep up when Belgium upped their game.”
Relieved Belgium manager Roberto Martinez saluted his side’s resolve.
“The players had the desire to win and to do it during the 90 minutes was an incredible achievement,” said Martinez.
“Keep believing in Belgium. In the World Cup you want to be perfect but it’s about getting through, it’s about winning.”
Having also exited the last 16 in both 2002 and 2010, Japan suffered knock-out stage heartbreak for the third time.
From the start, the Blue Samurai’s tactics were clear – harass and hurry their opponents every time they were on the ball while living off scraps.
It almost paid off.
A long-range shot from Eden Hazard was Belgium’s brightest chance in the first 45 minutes as Japan kept close tabs on Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku.
After a goalless first-half, the game exploded into life.
Japan took the lead when they won possession deep in their own half.
The ball was moved downfield quickly and when Vertonghen failed to intercept the final pass, Haraguchi sprinted clear.
He placed his shot just past Thibaut Courtois’ despairing glove and inside the far post on 48 minutes.
Falling behind rattled the Belgians as Hazard clattered the post moments later.
Japan doubled their lead on 52 minutes when Inui unleashed a thunderbolt shot off his right boot which flew past the despairing Courtois.
Desperate for a goal to get them back in the game, Lukaku headed wide with an hour approaching.
With 25 minutes left, Martinez swapped Fellaini and Chadli for Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco, which sparked the Belgium response.
Vertonghen made amends for his mistake in the build-up to Japan’s opening goal when his speculative header from out wide looped over Eiji Kawashima’s grasp on 69 minutes.
Then Belgium drew level when Hazard’s pin-point ball found Fellaini in the middle and the Manchester United midfielder unleashed an unstoppable header on 74 minutes.
It was end-to-end stuff for the final quarter of an hour.
As his defence started to tire, goalkeeper Kawashima kept Japan in the game his side with two saves in quick succession to deny Chadli and Lukaku.
At the other end, Courtois saved Keisuke Honda’s wickedly curling free shot which led to the winning goal.
The Belgium goalkeeper cleared the ball, Kevin de Bruyne spotted Thomas Meunier unmarked out wide and the Paris Saint-Germain winger whipped in a superb cross.
Lukaku, who was marked, left it for Chadli to tap home and cap Belgium’s stunning win right before the final whistle.