SAO PAULO, Brazil — So, which Belgium team will the United States face when the two tangle in a World Cup second-round match in Salvador Tuesday?
Will the Americans see a side that won all three of its group matches, lived off the scoring heroics of second-half substitutes and has been a steel trap on defense?
Or will they take on a team at Arena Fonte Nova that has found the back of the net later in games, experienced problems getting goals out of its starting lineup and has major injury concerns on its back line?
The U.S., which is trying to reach the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time since 2002, is expecting nothing but the best from the Belgians.
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“They’re a top side with a lot of quality players,” U.S. captain and Seattle Sounders 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 … and be a little bit more quality in the attacking third.”
If the Belgians are working at all cylinders, the U.S. certainly will have its work cut out.
They have a younger and more mobile side in contrast to its traditional plodding style they have deployed in its 12 previous Cup appearances. The Belgians, whose best finish was fourth in the 1986 World Cup, are playing in their first World Cup since 2002.
“They have one of the most complete teams in the World Cup as far as defending and attacking,” left back DaMarcus Beasley said.
The Belgians’ core is a formidable quintet, led by center back and captain Vincent Kompany, and aided by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, playmaker Eden Hazard and midfielders Kevin De Bruyne and Axel Witsel.
“They’re known around Europe as one of the up and coming really hungry and talented teams,” U.S. 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.”
While the Belgians finished with a 3-0 mark in Group H, the group was perceived by many as the weakest. They began with a 2-1 victory over Algeria and followed that with 1-0 wins over Russia and South Korea.
In each match, Belgium displayed a flair for the dramatic. It connected for its first goal or game-winning goal in the 70th minute or later. In fact, three of its four goals have been secured by second-half subs. That says much about its lack of finishing and firepower in the starting lineup or much about its bench.
The Belgian defense, on the other hand, has been simply outstanding. It surrendered just four goals in 10 World Cup qualifiers. In group play, it gave up a penalty kick by Algeria’s Sofiane Feghouli. Since then the Belgians haven’t allowed a goal in 245 minutes.
Their back line, however, has been beaten up with an injury list that seems to get longer by the day. Kompany did not play in 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.
Not having an influential player such as Kompany (Manchester City) would be a huge loss.
“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,” said Howard, who plays for Everton. “He’s one of the best in the league for a reason. 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.”