The U.S. men’s national team advanced out of its deathly group of the World Cup and will face a young and immensely talented Belgium side in the Round Of 16 on Tuesday.
Belgium enters the match as the winner of Group H, conceding just one goal in their three games, a penalty versus Algeria. Nearly their entire starting line-up, plus a few key subs, have eight-figure price tags on the European transfer market and play in the UEFA Champions League. Prior to the World Cup, Belgium was everyone’s favourite dark horse: oddsmakers gave them the fifth-shortest odds to win the entire tournament, behind only the expected powerhouses, Brazil, Spain, Germany, and Argentina.
And yet, despite winning all three of their group stage matches, Belgium failed to score before the 69th minute, needing late game heroics in all three to best their comparatively tame opponents, Algeria (2-1), Russia (1-0), and South Korea (1-0). For long stretches in all three games they looked flat and out of synch. ESPN’s SPI ranks Belgium as the second weakest team that won its group, and Nate Silver gives the US a 41.6% chance of winning.
The U.S. will be the underdog, but as we’ve learned, it’s a role they have embraced and then some.
To get yourself ready for USA vs. Belgium, here are four key Belgian players to know and keep an eye on during the game.
Eden Hazard (#10)
Hazard is the centrepiece of Belgium’s entire offence and will pose the biggest threat to the U.S. The 23-year-old Chelsea superstar has been hailed one of the best attacking players in Europe and can change the entire course of a game in a flash. When he drifts out wide, he’s particularly dangerous with his speed and playmaking ability. In the group stage, Hazard assisted two of Belgium’s four goals and will have fresh legs against the US, playing just 10 minutes in his team’s final match versus South Korea. Whether the U.S. defence can deal with Hazard could prove the difference versus Belgium.
Marouane Fellaini (#8)
He’s hard to miss with that glorious hair, but Fellaini’s more than just his mop. The holding midfielder struggled in his first season with Manchester United, but Fellaini’s coming into form at the World Cup. He scored a beautiful header to equalise versus Algeria, and he’s kept possession and defended well for Belgium thus far. Behind the ball Fellaini’s size helps disrupt opposition possession, but he also likes to bomb forward and is a key target on set pieces and crosses. He’ll match up against U.S. attacking midfielder Michael Bradley, which will be one of the biggest and most fun individual contests of the match, not just because of their radically different hair styles.
Thibaut Courtois (#1)
Courtois is arguably the most talented player on the entire Belgian squad, and, since he’s the goalie, the one the U.S. will absolutely need to crack if they want to advance to the quarters. Just 22-years-old, Courtois has already played at the apex of European soccer; on loan from Chelsea, Courtois guided Atlético Madrid to the La Liga title and Champions League final this past season. At the World Cup he’s yet to concede a goal during open play, allowing only a penalty kick to Algeria. Plus he’s 6’6″ — if he had Fellaini’s hair it’d probably graze the crossbar. Should the game be tied after 120 minutes and head to penalty kicks, Courtouis could shine.
Vincent Kompany (#4)
Kompany’s a veteran centerback and the team captain, but he’s injury prone and doubtful to play against the U.S. He tweaked his groin late in the second half versus Algeria, and pulled out of the starting lineup versus South Korea just 30 minutes prior to kickoff after it flared up during warm-ups. Because inexperience is the biggest question mark for the young Belgian side, whether Kompany’s fit to play against the U.S. may alter the entire flow of the game. If he plays, he’ll go face-to-face with U.S. captain Clint Dempsey, and it will be a battle. But if he doesn’t play, Nicolas Lombaerts will probably start in his place. Lombaerts isn’t half bad, but certainly isn’t the talisman Kompany is.
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