Dark horse Belgium clash with combative US; Algerian referee subject of mind games
The Americans are in the knockout rounds of consecutive World Cups for the first time, while Belgium, after missing the last two World Cups, have won three straight games at football's showcase for the first time.india Updated: Jul 01, 2014 14:44 IST
Belgium, tipped by many as the dark horse of this World Cup, have injury worries as they head into a the clash against Jurgen Klinsmann's US side in the last match of the last 16 phase.
Belgium could be without captain and centre-back Vincent Kompany and are definitely deprived of his central defensive partner Thomas Vermaelen, who has a knee injury.
Kompany is struggling with a niggling groin injury, but coach Marc Wilmots said it would be a "failure" not to reach the quarter-finals.
He was also unconcerned about criticism of the style of Belgium's three straight wins in Group H and playmaker Eden Hazard being eclipsed in most matches.
"I let people make their complaints, we just advance. We are not going to bang our heads against the wall. When I see the team giving everything I have no regrets. We have a young team, unbeaten for a long time in competitive matches," Wilmots said Monday.
Klinsmann, who faced criticism from the US media before the tournament but is now flavour of the moment, is also confident.
He has told his players to push their flights back to after the July 13 final.
Belgium beat the US in two friendlies in the past three years, but Klinsmann says his team has changed, as they showed with their group win over Ghana and determined draw with Portugal.
"We also believe we can have enough confidence going into this very special knockout game to say we are able to beat them," said the German.
The winners of the two games will clash in the quarter-finals in Brasilia on Saturday.
Altidore, referee focus before game
The Americans will try to reach the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 2002 when they play Belgium.
"For some of the guys, it's the last opportunity, so we have to make the most of it," US captain Clint Dempsey said. "And I'm sure if we play to the best of our ability, we'll get a positive result."
There were two bits of news on the eve of the match. Jozy Altidore recovered sufficiently from his left hamstring strain to be available, although it appears he is unlikely to start.
The forward has not played since the Americans' June 16 opener, when he was taken off on a stretcher during the first half.
“Just having him with us tomorrow is huge,” Klinsmann said, adding Altidore's time on the field depended on "how much work is in his legs".
Klinsmann created a stir by saying he wasn't happy with FIFA's choice of referee, Algeria's Djamel Haimoudi. His nation was eliminated by the US in 2010, and Algeria played in the same first-round group as Belgium.
"Is it a good feeling? No," Klinsmann said at a news conference.
Wilmots dismissed Klinsmann's comments, saying, "If we start going into this, it is looking for excuses ahead of the match."
The US and Belgium haven't played in the World Cup since the first tournament in 1930, a 3-0 win by the Americans.
A US team has a lot more people following now. "The country is paying attention in a way that it's never done before, and we have a chance to make some history," US Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said.
President Barack Obama even watched last week from Air Force One.
"It means a lot to us, the energy that comes from the United States," said Klinsmann, the former German star striker who moved to California in 1998. "You see where the game is going in the United States. You can't stop it anymore. It's breaking through."
The 13th-ranked Americans are in the knockout rounds of consecutive World Cups for the first time. Belgium, ranked 11th after missing the last two World Cups, have won three straight games at soccer's showcase for the first time.
But the Red Devils are banged up. Apart from sweating over Kompany, Belgium also have worries in midfielders Moussa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini — known for his mop of bushy dark hair. Both have been slowed by calf injuries.
Fellaini is a former Everton teammate of American goalkeeper Tim Howard, who played with Belgian forwards Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas last season.
Howard is also familiar with Eden Hazard, who was criticised for his play during the first round despite setting up go-ahead goals against Russia and Algeria.
"Probably one of the best players in the Premier League," Howard said. "He's shifty. He's crafty. He's everything you want in a winner."
Belgium are quite familiar with Klinsmann. He scored in Germany's 3-2 win over Belgium at Chicago's Soldier Field in the second round of the 1994 World Cup.
Klinsmann and Wilmots are friends, too. They had scheduled a training session between the teams June 12, but Wilmots called it off because he didn't want to get caught in Sao Paulo's traffic jams.
Last year, Belgium overwhelmed the US 4-2 in an exhibition at Cleveland. But friendlies are different.
The Americans know they have to boost their offence, which was next to last in attacks during the first round.
Venue: Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador
Kickoff: 1.30am in India
First Published: Jul 01, 2014 11:17 IST