Preview: Belgium could go all the way against the USA
He may never have been here before as a manager but Marc Wilmots saw most things as a player and he is fully aware that it’s a whole new ballgame in the knockout stages. Before the first game, we chronicled his painful experience of twelve years ago here and thus he is only too aware that these games can turn on the finest of margins. We have already seen that in this tournament’s round of sixteen when Mauricio Pinilla struck the crossbar in the final minute of extra time for Chile.
As we saw with Brazil and then Costa Rica, it can also come down to penalties. Certain players have been practising their spot-kicks in training despite the fact that Wilmots readily admits the precise scenario can never be truly replicated. The coach has his list of five players ready and named Eden Hazard (who is the epitome of cool when he steps up), Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas. Once again, expectations are much greater outside of the squad (and BeNeFoot.net) and given the steely resolve the United States have shown in this tournament allied to the quality of Clint Dempsey in particular, the Stars and Stripes will be a tough opponent to put away, much more so than in last year’s end-of-season friendly in Cleveland, Ohio, which ended 2-4 in Belgium’s favour.
With Wilmots expecting the mental battle to be more of a factor than the conditions in Salvador, there’s no player he will want to be able to count on more than his inspirational captain Vincent Kompany, who at the time of writing remains a big doubt to play. A decision will only be made shortly before the kick-off on the Manchester City centreback who had been battling a groin problem even before he was rested for the final group game against South Korea. He has missed quite a bit of training and been doing individual sessions with physio Lieven Maesschalck and was even replaced by the less multilingual but just as integral Axel Witsel at yesterday’s press conference.
Kompany can make a difference with his sheer presence willing his teammates on, with an inspired piece of defending as we saw against Russia to stop Kokorin in his tracks, with his occasional but often effective and spectacular forays forward into the opposition half and with an even more occasional goal. He broke the deadlock in Cardiff and his header in the Manchester derby helped swing the 2011-12 title towards his side.
The above is no slight on Nicolas Lombaerts – the studious backup is always a big hit when he addresses the media and highlighted once again against the Koreans that he is more than able to step in at the back and give an assured performance. If he finds himself having to sit on the bench at Zenit in the wake of Ezequiel Garay’s transfer, the 29-year-old former KAA Gent player will have no shortage of suitors. Alongside him is Daniel van Buyten, a player who has had to exhibit mental fortitude throughout his career. Having had a tetchy relationship with the press in the past, there is now an air of serenity that surrounds a player who remains underappreciated in some quarters. He could not be accused of ending his international career with a whimper – he led the tournament in terms of blocks and was named in the FIFA/Castrol Team of the Group Stage. Along with Mario Yepes, he’s flying the flag for the veterans at the back.
With Anthony Vanden Borre ruled out of the tournament and Thomas Vermaelen not yet fully fit, the other major selection concerns as usual concern the balance between midfield and attack further forward in front of the seemingly impenetrable and unflappable Witsel. Marouane Fellaini looks assured of his spot alongside his former teammate. Wilmots remains a keen student of the German game having starred with distinction for Schalke 04 and he is wary of the ability of Jermaine Jones in particular to break forward from midfield with his power. Steven Defour is suspended following his deserved red, which gives Wilmots the problem of whether to go with extra power in Dembélé or Chadli or with De Bruyne and consequently Mertens on the right-hand side. Mertens expects to start but the evidence remains in favour of him being more potent off the bench, Chadli was poor against Algeria and Dembélé’s tendency to dwell in the ball is a risk against Jones, Beckerman and Bradley.
Eden Hazard is often erroneously talked up as the pivotal figure in this side but his battle with the highly impressive USA rightback Fabian Johnson will be one to watch this evening. If les Diables Rouges can succeed in pinning Johnson back and stifling his attacking threat, they should go a long way to gaining the upper hand. Hazard has said pre-game that he acknowledges the need to be a more consistent danger and that by now he is more than used to teams doubling up. Jan Vertonghen behind him remains a centre-back doing a job and must not try to play like a Marcelo, which he blatantly is not, but his goal against South Korea will have taught him the benefit of carefully chosen intervention in the final third. Vertonghen, who will captain if Kompany doesn’t make it, has been full of praise for young Divock Origi, who in my own view has earned a starting spot but that said, my money would still be on Lukaku who has a point to prove in whatever role he fulfils tonight.
The title of this preview is of course a play on the fact that certain journalists, whether misinformed or not, expected a much more lavish set of displays from this team and that not being the case, have taken out their frustrations in the form of criticising the squad. Wilmots and his men are rightly content with their parcours to date having achieved their (and our) goal of reaching the knockout stage. Nine points from nine and the only team yet to concede from open play, de Rode Duivels will need every last drop of their mental reserves to see off Jürgen Klinsmann’s men and reach the quarter finals. Bring it on!
— BeNeFoot (@BeNeFoot) June 30, 2014