Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador
July 1, 2014; 21:00 GMT
Belgium have been the hipsters’ pick to make a deep run into the knockout stages of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, but have been favourites rather than outsiders for much of the tournament this far. Qualifying from one of the ‘weaker’ groups in this World Cup, they face a United States squad that was not expected to even score points in the group stages, let alone qualify from the toughest group in World Cup history. Can Jurgen Klinsmann’s USA carry on exceeding expectations, or will a relatively inexperienced yet individually brilliant Belgium reign supreme?
Team News and Tactical Brief
The Red Devils had not previously qualified for the FIFA World Cup since 2002, and look like they are keen to make up for lost time. Previously regarded as dark horses, Belgium are one of the three teams still in this World Cup with a perfect record and will look to keep it that way as Marc Wilmots’ squad meets the United States in Salvador.
The success of Marc Wilmots’ squad in qualification and in the group stages in Brazil has been built on the foundation of a strong backline. Arsenal captain Thomas Vermealen’s duties have been limited to deputising for Tottenham’s Jan Verthongen, as three of Belgium’s back four have won league titles in top European leagues this season. The Red Devils, however, lack the presence of natural fullbacks who can provide width. This may help in providing solidity in defence up to a point, but the lack of willingness of Eden Hazard on the left to track back when opponents have the ball could result in 2-on-1 situations being created time and again by the United States, especially on Belgium’s left. Romelu Lukaku, on the other hand, is likely to start up front, but his inability to link up smoothly with Hazard and Dries Mertens behind him may necessitate the intervention of Lille’s Divock Origi once again.
Belgium have not done enough to impress onlookers in this World Cup, but the fact that all their goals have been scored after the 70th minute of their games is indication that they are patient enough when patience is needed. It is important to play well but more important to get the job done; and the fact that the United States have made an unfortunate habit of conceding late goals in recent times (most notably against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal) represents a fine opportunity for the Belgians to go in for the kill towards the end.
Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Thibaut Courtois (GK); Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany (C), Daniel van Buyten, Jan Vertonghen; Marouane Fellaini, Axel Witsel; Dries Mertens, Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard; Romelu Lukaku
Having achieved Jurgen Klinsmann’s stated aim of not just making up the numbers in Group G, the USA are now in no mood to simply settle for what they have. Standing in their way is a squad that is not as high profile as Group G toppers Germany, but with a very similar setup. Belgium are strong in the middle, have a handy target man up front, and play with a flat back four that includes central defenders playing out of position as fullbacks.
The United States are a well-drilled squad and will be hard to put away, but it is the individual quality of a number of players on the other side that make Belgium slight favourites. That being said, since the last time the United States faced the Red Devils (see video at the bottom), the likes of Marouane Fellaini, Jan Verthongen and Axel Witsel have had less than stellar seasons for their clubs, while Toby Alderweireld has played sparingly since his move to Spanish champions Atletico Madrid. Moreover, Belgium do not look as finely tuned as they did one year ago, and despite (as mentioned earlier) a perfect record, have relied on late goals to make it thus far.
As in that brutal game against Portugal last Sunday, the Americans’ biggest test will be in containing the brilliance of Eden Hazard. Cristiano Ronaldo did not have much joy against the USA, and a similar game plan may well be required against the Chelsea midfielder.
In a manner very similar to his counterpart Marc Wilmots, the substitutions made by USA manager Jurgen Klinsmann have made a significant difference thus far in the tournament. While John Brooks’ recovery from a shaky start to score the winning goal against Ghana will forever be remembered, DeAndre Yedlin’s pace was used to devastating effect to create 2-on-1 situations against Miguel Veloso last Sunday. It will be much harder to do that against a more accomplished defender in Jan Verthongen, but is still possible.
Midfielder Michael Bradley has not been at his best in previous games, and will need to turn his game up by a few notches against the double pivot of Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini. There is still time left (at the time of writing), but Belgium captain Vincent Kompany is a doubtful starter, as is Thomas Vermealen. This will not just leave Marc Wilmots with problems in constructing his back line, but will lend strengthen the USA’s chances in scoring goals, esp given Jozy Altidore’s progress in recovering from the unfortunate injury he suffered in the first game against Ghana.
Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Tim Howard (GK); Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley; Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman; Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Graham Zusi; Clint Dempsey (C)
Players to Watch Out For
Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Jose Mourinho calls him the best young player in the world, one that can provide ‘the magic moments that can win games in one action’. Eden Hazard is arguably Belgium’s most exciting player, if nothing else, and will be the key to unlocking a United States defence that has not been at it’s absolute best in this World Cup. He has been relatively quiet in the group stages, but has still assisted winning goals for Dries Mertens and Divock Origi against Algeria and Russia respectively.
The United States have had their hands full defending their right side, so far coming up against the marauding Kwadwo Asamoah, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lukas Podolski; and will now face yet another test in the form of the Belgian wonderkid. This game is tailor-made for Eden Hazard to shine, the important question is whether he will.
Clint Dempsey (USA)
“Broken nose but not broken heart”, said a poster at the Arena Amazonia in Manaus last Sunday, as Clint Dempsey soldiered through a broken nose to put the United States 2-1 ahead of Portugal late in the game. In the absence of Jozy Altidore’s hold-up play, Clint Dempsey has been the focal point for most attacking moves constructed by the Americans in the group stages of the World Cup.
He will, most likely, match up against Belgium captain Vincent Kompany, an imposing figure capable of making mistakes but accomplished nevertheless. USA did not muster enough of a goal threat against Germany in their final game in Group G, and Deuce will need to be at his very best if the Americans are to score against the Red Devils.
Belgium 2-1 USA
Blast From The Past