50-50 Challenge: Belgium vs. U.S.
Belgium took care of business in Group H, winning all three matches, and now face an upset-minded United States for a place in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Our ESPN FC bloggers Wim Van Walle (Belgium) and Jason Davis (United States) preview the round of 16 tie.
Form and fitness
Wim Van Walle: Belgium go into the game having just established a number of records. They won their group for the first time, with the maximum points, also a first in any competition. After the South Korea match, they are unbeaten in their last 13 games. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois reached his 100th clean sheet against Russia, a big landmark for such a young goalkeeper. Belgium are on a roll and look supremely fit, deciding their games in the final 20 minutes when their opponent starts to fade. Anthony Vanden Borre isn't available after he broke his leg against South Korea while Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen are doubtful to play against the Americans.
Jason Davis: The Americans made it this far, finishing second in a group most gave them little chance to survive, through little more than guts and guile. In the process, Jurgen Klinsmann's team collected a raft of injuries that could play a role in their readiness for the match. At their best, the United States can go toe-to-toe with most teams in the tournament, including the Belgians. With the amount of defensive football they were forced to play in the group stage, however, there remains some doubt whether they can flip the necessary switch in the round of 16. Despite indications that Jozy Altidore is approaching full fitness, it seems unlikely the striker will figure from the start.
World Cup history
WV: Belgium and the U.S. met straight away in the first World Cup in 1930. The U.S. won 3-0 in Montevideo, Uruguay, on their way to winning the group. It was the last time they ever met in competition. Since then, Belgium have won three friendly games in Brussels, 1-0 in 1995 and 2011 plus 2-0 in 1998. Their last meeting came in May 2013 in Cleveland. Belgium won 4-2, a scoreline that, according to some U.S. writers, flattered the Americans. Klinsmann said after the game that he had "learned a lot."
JD: These teams have little relevant World Cup history, their only meeting coming in the first edition of the tournament in 1930. From a more general historical perspective, Klinsmann and the U.S. have a chance to equal the best performance by an American team at the World Cup in the country's modern era if they can advance to the quarterfinals. In many ways, a victory over the talented Belgians would trump the 2002 run that saw the U.S. beat Mexico in the first knockout round game. Beating a European opponent on the biggest stage is a hurdle the Americans have yet to clear as they work to become a world power.
WV: In Cleveland, Belgium exposed their host's defence on several occasions. Romelu Lukaku ran riot, and with better service, the score could have been much higher. With the emergence of Divock Origi, it is impossible to say which of these two young strikers will start. Both will be a handful. Origi is comfortable on the ball, has bags of confidence and seems completely unaffected by the occasion. But coach Marc Wilmots could still go for Lukaku in view of that friendly game and the extra experience he brings. In that case, expect Lukaku to be intent on making a statement. He hasn't had the best World Cup and will want to make amends. The U.S. central defenders will have their hands full with either one of them.
JD: Fabian Johnson vs. Eden Hazard stands out as the most obvious one-on-one battle. If the Americans are going to hold down Hazard, the task will most often fall to right back Johnson, who played excellently in the group stage, though much of his effectiveness came up the field as part of the American attack. Against Belgium, Johnson could be pinned back while dealing with the talented Hazard, limiting his ability to get forward. How the U.S. adapt and whether Johnson is limited by Klinsmann's directions will play a major role in just how much influence Johnson and Hazard have on the game.
Why does your side deserve to progress?
WV: Belgium may not have given the neutral spectator much to cheer about, but they have shown they can win games the ugly way. And the hard way. They are an incredibly tight outfit and very hard to beat. They haven't played well but deserved to win their group with resilient and resolute no-nonsense football. Their greatest strength seems to be in depth. Three of their four goals were scored by substitutes. As Wilmots says: "The last 20 minutes of a game are the most important." Belgium have that down to a fine art.
JD: Whatever success the Americans have earned at this World Cup is based on their ability to outwork and outlast their opponents. Advancement past Belgium and into the second knockout round will be no different, should it happen. The U.S. can put the ball on the ground and play with an attacking intent we've not seen much of so far, and one has to wonder if such an approach is the best method to overcome Belgium. Getting by on fighting spirit and commitment to defending might work in the battle of attrition that is the group stage, but a more expansive mindset is needed from this point forward.
WV: While Belgium have been helped by their superior fitness, which has allowed them to overrun their opponents in the closing stages of games, the story might be different against the U.S. This is a clash of probably the two fittest teams in the World Cup, and it will go on for the full 90 minutes. If Belgium play the cautious game they have played so far, they could be in trouble. But with the mathematics of the group phase out of the way, Belgium may finally show what they can really do. If they let rip, the U.S. have no chance. 2-0 Belgium.
JD: The Americans enter the game with nothing to lose, having already exceeded expectations. That should give them plenty of reason to go after the Belgians and win the game outright, an approach that will be best way to keep Wilmots' side from reaching its potential. If the U.S. can keep themselves in the game into the late stages, the storied American fitness should come into play and help the Yanks wear down the Belgians. With lessons learned from the group stage and a rested team arriving in Salvador, the Americans can certainly spring the upset, 2-1.