We did it. We survived, when no one told us we could. But hold the celebrations, business is far from finished. The last time these teams met was just over a year ago in a friendly that ended with a 4-2 Belgium win. People are going to want to use comparisons between the two games, but don’t. Both lineups look different, especially considering Klinsmann was still experimenting with lineups at that time. With that out of the way, let’s look at how they got here.
Belgium Group Play Mini-cap
Playing in arguably the weakest group in the tournament, Belgium won Group H with a 3-0-0 record, 4 goals for, and 1 goal against. Regardless of their nine points, Belgium is still trying to figure things out. This is very much an unorganized team. The only game they played in the group stage that was even remotely entertaining was their opener against Algeria, where Belgium fought back from a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1, and you could argue that Algeria deserved at least a point in the match. Of their four goals scored, three came via a substitute – Fellaini and Mertens against Algeria and Origi against Russia. Their only goal scored by someone in the starting 11 was Jan Vertonghen’s 78th minute winner against Korea Republic. Belgium’s defense was vulnerable during the group stage, and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois bailed them out many times. The scary part about this team is that they are far from pulling things together, and still managed to win every group game.
USA Group Play Mini-cap
Many people were ruling out the U.S. before the World Cup started. They said our group was weak, and that we were the worst team in the group. The U.S. proved them wrong. If you told me before the World Cup that Jozy Altidore would only play 20 minutes in the group stage, and the U.S. would still make it out of the group, I would have told you that you were crazy. The U.S. proved me wrong. They finished runners-up in Group G with a 1-1-1 record, 4 goals for and 4 goals against. Despite not having their best performance, they managed to beat Ghana for the first time on an 86th minute header by John Brooks. Their next game against Portugal was one of the best performances in the history of them program, despite tying 2-2 after a heart-breaking stoppage time goal by Silvestre Varela. Going in to their final game against Germany, pretty much anything could have happened. The U.S. put up a solid effort, and lost 1-0 on a Thomas Mueller rebound goal, but advanced after Cristiano Ronaldo saved the U.S. by sealing a 2-1 win over Ghana. This team, like Belgium, is not at their full potential. That could be a good or a bad thing – it all depends on how long it takes the U.S. to get up-to-speed.
Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid, on loan from Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Sammy Bossut (Zulte Waregem).
Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Atlético Madrid), Laurent Ciman (Standard Liege), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Nicolas Lombaerts (Zenit), Daniel Van Buyten (Bayern Munich), Anthony Vanden Borre (Anderlecht), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham).
Midfielders: Nacer Chadli (Tottenham), Steven Defour (Porto), Moussa Dembélé (Tottenham), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Axel Witsel (Zenit).
Forwards: Kevin De Bruyne (Wolfsburg), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Adnan Januzaj (Manchester United), Romelu Lukaku (Everton), Dries Mertens (Napoli), Kevin Mirallas (Everton), Divock Origi (Lille).
Manager: Marc Wilmots
Trying to predict Marc Wilmots’ lineup may prove tricky. They went with a 4-5-1 formation in all three group stage games. In their 2-1 win against Alegria, their lineup was: Courtois in goal; Alerderweireld, Van Buyten, Kompany, and Vertonghen across the back line; Witsel, Dembele, and De Bruyne in central midfield; Hazard and Chadli on the wings; and Lukaku as the lone striker. Their lineup looked a little different in their 1-0 win over Russia, keeping their back five the same with the exception of bringing on Vermaelen for Vertonghen, Fellaini for Dembele, and Mertens for Chadli. In an effort to rest his “starters,” and with their fate practically sealed going in to their clash with Korea Republic, Wilmots went played his bench players with the exception of Courtois, Van Buyten, Vertonghen, Dembele, Fellaini, and Mertens. With that being said, this team has yet to find their identity. They are also facing injury trouble. Perhaps “trouble” is putting it lightly. Reports have stated that fullback Anthony Vanden Borre is done after an MRI revealed a broken fibula, fullback Laurent Ciman is questionable, and defenders Thomas Vermaelen (hamstring) and Vincent Kompany (groin) are listed as doubtful. They also have guys on yellow cards. Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Dembele, and Fellaini all have received yellow cards, meaning they would miss the game in the quarterfinals should they receive a yellow card in the U.S. game and if Belgium advance. Substitute Steven Defour also received a red card during the Korea Republic game. With their injuries on the back line, it looks like there could be two options: Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Kompany, and Vertonghen; or Alderweireld, Van Buyten, Vertonghen, and Ciman. Courtois is a definitely to start in goal, and Lukaku at striker. Expect Mertens and Hazard on the wings, with De Bruyne, Fellaini, and Witsel in central midfield.
- Strong on the counter attack
- Thibaut Courtois
- Vulnerable defense
- Injury woes
How The U.S. Can Exploit The Weakness & Contain The Strengths Of Belgium
If the U.S. want to win this game, they need to go after Belgium’s defense and Thibaut Courtois early and often. No goalkeeper in the world is having a better year than Courtois. Courtois had much of the pressure taken off of him while at Atletico Madrid due to their superb back line. However, the Belgian back line is far from Atletico Madrid’s, especially considering their injury woes.
Consider this strategy absolutely crazy, but it seemed to work during the group stage. Belgium is a counter attacking team that likes to cross the ball (62 total crosses during group play – average 20-21 per game). The U.S. allowed 84 crosses during group play, successfully clearing 78 percent of those out of the air (the only goal conceded via crossing was Varela during the Portugal game). During the group stage, Klinsmann practically said “go ahead and try to beat us with the possession advantage, but you’re not going to beat us on the wings.” Perhaps it is by design, perhaps it is not.
Things To Watch For
- One thing that is not by design is the U.S.’s poor possession stats. Of all 32 teams during the group stage, they ranked 31st in possession. It will not be required for the U.S. to have the possession advantage against Belgium, but it has to improve somewhat.
- Yellow card watch
- Belgium – Vertonghen, Fellaini, Dembele, and Alderweireld
- USA – Jermaine Jones, Omar Gonzalez, and Kyle Beckerman
- Who gets the start beside Matt Besler: Gonzalez or Geoff Cameron?
- The Battle of Central Midfield
- U.S. defensive errors
- Fatigue in the U.S. central midfield (Player – miles covered (rank of all players during the group stage))
- Michael Bradley – 23.6 (1st)
- Kyle Beckerman – 20.8 (14th)
- Jermaine Jones – 20.2 (26th)
I see Belgium, talent-wise, as somewhere between Germany and Portugal. Which is it closer towards? My guess is Portugal, mainly because Belgium isn’t quite clicking as a unit yet. The U.S. is playing as more of a cohesive unit, which will play to their advantage. If Vermaelen and Kompany start, Vertonghen and Alderweireld (center backs for their club team, though Alderweireld can play full back) will be playing full back, meaning Klinsmann is likely to defend Belgium similar to the way they defended Germany – suffocate the wingers and let the fullbacks try to swing in crosses. If Kompany and/or Vermaelen can’t play, that dramatically helps out the attack. That gives Dempsey time to hold up the ball while the midfield is transitioning, and makes Belgium much weaker in their central defense. Klinsmann is going to have to be tactically brilliant again this game. Which central midfielder will be the first to sit on the bench? As you’ve read, they have got a lot of miles on those legs. Will Yedlin be called on again to play on the wing? Will Romelu Lukaku finally break out of his slump? There are plenty of questions heading in to this game, so expect an entertaining affair. To me, this game has penalty kicks written all over it. My prediction: 1-1 with goals by Hazard and Dempsey, and Belgium winning in penalty kicks. Any team with Thibaut Courtois in goal automatically has the upper-hand in penalty kicks. Again, I would never be more happy to be proven wrong.
*Miles covered stats provided by Ben Jata: https://twitter.com/Ben_Jata/status/482592003327557633
**Stats provided via www.squawka.com
***Rosters provided by http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/27388351