World Cup Round of 16 | Salvador | Wed 2 Jul | 4am
Tune in after 120 minutes for the penalties…
Among the many marvellous aspects of this truly wonderful and bonkers World Cup, one of the finest qualities is its sheer wide open-ness. Sure, the hosts have steadied their nerves slightly with their thrashing of Cameroon. Elsewhere, Holland, Chile, France and Colombia have dazzled at times, Germany are getting results and Leo Messi is starting to produce something resembling his brilliant best for Argentina.
But every single one of these ‘form’ sides have looked dubious at some point in proceedings, and not one of them resembles nailed-on finalists – or even semi-finalists – in the way, say, the ominous Spain 2010 or Brazil 2002 outfits did.
That’s great news for the outsiders in the last 16, into which category both Belgium and USA should firmly fall – despite the fact the Red Devils are one of the four sides left in the tournament who have won every game so far (Holland, Colombia and Argentina the other three).
The biggest surprise about Marc Wilmots’ men, who we are contractually obliged to mention are Dark Horses despite the fact they’re packed to the brim with big name internationals, is how uninspiring they have been.
They’ve been solid, organised and physical like a Belgium side of old, but laboured past Algeria, Russia and South Korea, and the added pizzazz we hoped to see from the likes of Eden Hazard, Adam Januzaj and Romelu Lukaku has been all but absent.
That said, they’ve only conceded one goal – a penalty against Algeria – and as much as they’ve bored us senseless, they are defensively admirable, both as a collective and via brilliant individuals like Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
While Belgium have arguably been less than the sum of their impressive parts, the USA have undoubtedly maximised every fabric of their (on-paper) workaday squad. Jurgen Klinsmann deserves high praise for his tactics so far, and getting through Group G ahead of Portugal and Ghana was a huge achievement.
Switching between a 4-1-4-1 and a 4-2-3-1 after Jozy Altidore’s injury in the Ghana game, there has been much to love about the side that acronym-crazed Yanks love to call USMNT, including Fabian Johnson’s raids from right-back, Omar Gonzalez and Michael Bradley’s ubiquitousness, Kyle Beckerman’s dreadlocked hustle, DaMarcus Beasley’s passing and Clint Dempsey’s line-leading.
The bad news for fans of goal-fests – and we’ve been spoiled with a fair few already this tournament – is that USA are likely to take a fairly conservative approach towards this fixture, and given Belgium’s current offensive bluntness, we could be looking at 0-0 and penalties. The winner will also need to seriously up their game to get past a likely quarter-final clash with Argentina – but in this World Cup, nothing seems impossible.
What the local media say
As well as having the largest contingent of visiting fans in Brazil, soccer fever is sweeping the States. “Business came to a halt at many companies nationwide as employees gathered in break rooms and huddled around television sets,” reported a mildly astonished Washington Post. “Many others left work early for the day, settling into bar stools or living-room couches. In fact, one day earlier Klinsmann encouraged soccer fans to skip work, sending an excuse note via Twitter for fans to deliver to their bosses.”
The Belgians, meanwhile, seem quietly optimistic. “While Belgium failed to impress and to dominate their opponents so far, they won yet again,” says Dere Dactie in Belgium. “The squad is emerging as a team that’s hard to manoeuvre. Belgium haven’t let a goal in, bar a penalty, and can count on a world-class goalkeeper. In attack, a touch of genius can be enough to decide the match.”
Key battle: Axel Witsel vs Michael Bradley
There won’t be room to swing a cat in midfield during this fixture, and passing accuracy will be paramount. Bradley was USA’s top pass-maker in the clash with Germany – rolling 15 balls to central partner Beckerman, and getting 13 back from his henchman. Axel Witsel, meanwhile, was Belgium’s key possession-retainer against Russia – completing all 35 efforts he attempted – and was also effective in the opening fixture against Algeria. Rested for the South Korea match, expect the Zenit man back to face the Americans.
Fact and figures
- Belgium and USA have met just once before in the World Cup, in what was for both their first World Cup game in 1930. The US ran out 3-0 winners in Montevideo.
- Only Iran (30%) had a lower average possession figure in the group stage than Jurgen Klinsmann's side (39%).
- The last 6 Belgian goals at World Cups have come in the closing 20 minutes of games.
More FFT Stats Zone facts
A tight draw: young stopper Courtois to prove his worth in a penalty shoot out and send Belgium through.