Belgium's love affair with substitutes came to the fore again, as Romelu Lukaku inspired a stunning 2-1 extra time win over dejected, gave-absolutely-everything-but-fell-marginally-short USA in an enthralling final last 16 encounter of this remarkable 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
The Belgians battered the USA goal in Salvador, especially in the second half, only to find some iffy finishing and some unbelievable goalkeeping from Tim Howard, who made 15 saves in all, denying them that victory in normal time.
So, the match went into extra time – the fifth round of 16 encounter to do so – and Lukaku, so disappointing at this World Cup so far, came on, set up a goal for Kevin De Bruyne, before scoring the winner in some style late in the first period of extra time to seemingly send Belgium on their way to an eventually comfortable win.
However, there was plenty of drama to come as another substitute Julian Green came in to score for the Americans right at the beginning of the second 15 to cue end-to-end will-they-won't-they action, before Belgium eventually held on, just, to seal their quarterfinal clash against Lionel Messi's Argentina, after their own extra time victory.
Belgium have taken a little while to get going in their games, but the Europeans shot off the blocks in near stunning style, as Divock Origi, off a pass from Kevin De Bruyne, found himself one-on-one with Tim Howard inside the first minute of the game, with the striker firing his shot straight at the USA goalkeeper.
If that early chance was a warning of what was to come, USA did not seem to pay too much heed, as Belgium looked to end that "cannot score a goal before 70 minutes" curse that they have been on in this World Cup.
Left-back Jan Vertonghen was Belgium's creative force, especially in the first half, making runs down the left time and again, while also nipping in in midfield to steal the ball, like he did in the 22nd minute to slip through a pass for De Bruyne, who fired his reverse right-footed shot to the near post a couple of feet wide with Howard well beaten.
While Belgium enjoyed the bulk of the big chances, Eden Hazard was not quite as involved as his team would have liked, with the playmaker cutting in on quite a few occasions, but struggling to find the final ball or shot to trouble USA.
At the other end, the Americans also had a couple of decent openings with Clint Dempsey coming closest, firing his shot straight at Thibaut Courtois, who did not have even remotely as much work to as his counterpart Howard.
The message from Belgium coach Marc Wilmots at halftime would have been more of the same, and they kept at it in the second half as well, with USA, fortune sticking to them like glue, holding on to keep that scoreline at 0-0. Vertonghen continued his tremendous game, marauding down the left again, before crossing low, which Origi, justifying his inclusion ahead of the more experienced Romelu Lukaku, somehow failed to make contact with.
The left-back would also fire a nice effort on the volley high, before Belgium, their assault in full flow, came that little bit closer again as Origi saw his header nick the crossbar.
Dries Mertens then would have his final say in the game, flicking a shot from three yards just wide of the near post after some good work from Origi. Belgium, desperate to finish the game off in normal time, would not let up as the pressure just increased with Kevin Mirallas joining the attacking bandwagon.
Mirallas almost paved the way for that first goal, making a searing run through the middle before slipping in Origi, who must have been wondering just what he needs to find the back of the net, with his strike from 12 yards kept out by Howard – again.
The substitute, soon after, would have felt he should have scored as well as the roles were reversed with Origi playing a through ball for his fellow forward, but Mirallas saw his left-footed strike across goal wonderfully saved by his Everton teammate Howard.
It was well into Belgium goalscoring time now, and there only looked like one team finding the winning goal, with Hazard joining in the "let's sting Howard's palms" exercise by testing the USA keeper with an effort from the edge of the box, after Mirallas again did the initial damage with his pace.
The chances just kept coming quicker than droplets of sweat on this warm day in Salvador, with Daniel Van Buyten, Origi, Hazard and Vincent Kompany all firing either just wide or forcing a save from the impenetrable Howard.
In games like this, so often, the team under the cosh steal it right at the end with that one glorious chance, and the USA were gifted just that in the final minute of injury time, with Jermaine Jones heading down for substitute Chris Wondolowski to bury the ball into the net from seven yards. However, the striker fluffed his lines completely much to the disbelief of Jurgen Klinsmann, who in his heyday would have buried that with his eyes closed.
Wondolowski and the United States would be made to pay for that miss, with Belgium finding the goal they have deserved for quite some time in just the third minute of extra time.
Lukaku, built like a bull and with fresh legs, shrugged off the challenge of Matt Besler before racing down the left channel to cut the ball back towards De Bruyne. Omar Gonzalez got to the ball first but could only parry it to De Bruyne, who took a touch before smashing the ball into the side netting past Howard from a tight angle – there was nothing Howard could have done there with the impeccable goalkeeper finally beaten.
Lukaku and Mirallas stung the palms of Howard in quick succession as Belgium looked to kill the game off with space opening up courtesy USA's need for a goal and tiring defenders. The put-the-game-to-bed goal would come in the 104th minute, with De Bruyne returning the favour, picking out Lukaku, who smashed the ball past Howard to make it 2-0.
Klinsmann needed to inspire his team to make them believe they were still in the game, and the United States coach seemed to say to his counterpart Wilmots, "what you can do I can do as well", bringing on 19-year-old Julian Green who fired in a dream volley with virtually his first touch to pull this game right back into the balance, and become the youngest ever goalscorer for his country at the World Cup.
Jones came close soon after, firing just wide, while Lukaku forced another big save from his Everton teammate at the other end after another typically muscular run into the box.
USA, though, had their tails up, and with no give or up in their vocabulary, they just kept peppering the Belgium goal, with Courtois having to be at his best to deny Dempsey from close range. The ball kept zooming into the Belgium box in the final moments, but the telling touch from a USA player just would not come as Belgium celebrated their dramatic passage into the last eight.