Banged-up Belgium a formidable foe for U.S. in Round of 16

6/29/2014

By Michael Lewis

By Michael Lewis

Newsday

SAO PAULO, Brazil (MCT) — The United States' next World Cup challenge will be against a team that won all of its group matches, hasn't given up a goal in the run of play and has proved to have a deep bench.

The Belgium team, however, has been far from perfect and has shown some cracks as it prepares to meet the Americans in a round of 16 match at Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador on Tuesday.

Still, the USA is taking nothing for granted as it tries to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since Korea/Japan 2002.

"They have one of the most complete teams in the World Cup as far as defending and attacking," left back DaMarcus Beasley said.

Known for years for its plodding style, Belgium brought a younger and more mobile team into this competition.

"They're a top side with a lot of quality players," USA captain and striker Clint Dempsey said. "You have to make sure you stay compact defensively. They have players who can make a difference running at you. But at the same time, we've got to be on the front foot, play our game."

Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, playmaker Eden Hazard, midfielders Kevin De Bruyne and Axel Witsel and captain and center back Vincent Kom pany form Belgium's core.

"They're known around Europe as one of the up and coming really hungry and talented teams," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "All of their players are playing in top clubs. They've got all the qualities of being great. Hopefully, they won't take flight yet."

As talented and as dangerous as they are, there is a flip side.

The Belgians recorded a 3-0 mark in Group H, but it was perceived by many observers to be the weakest group. They started off with a 2-1 win over Algeria and followed that with 1-0 results over Russia and South Korea.

In each of their group wins, they scored their first goal or game-winner in the 70th minute or beyond. Three of their four goals have been tallied by second-half substitutes, which says much about the lack of starting XI firepower or a lot about its bench.

Belgium's defense has been rock solid, allowing only four goals in 10 qualifiers. In the World Cup, it surrendered a penalty kick by Algeria's Sofiane Feghouli in its opening 2-1 victory. Since then, the Belgians haven't allowed a goal in 245 minutes.

But the backline is showing signs of wear and tear. Kompany, who plays for Manchester City (England), missed Thursday's win over South Korea with a groin injury, as did Thomas Vermaelen (hamstring strain). Reserve right back Anthony Vanden Borre (fibula crack) was ruled out of the tournament. Backup Laurent Ciman has a groin strain.

Losing Kompany, however, would be the biggest blow.

"He's known as one of the better captains and leaders and he seems to will that team on at times. He's well-respected in that regard," Howard said. "He's one of the best in the league for a reason. He's always out there, he's always leading the troops. Sometimes he has to lead by example and, as a defender, that's hard, but he finds a way to do it. Hard tackling, stepping in and winning goals, driving the team forward. He's fantastic."

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