It's time to step into the light, dark horses
Belgium's been invisible in World Cup so...
ROUND OF 16
BELGIUM v UNITED STATES
(Tomorrow, 4am, Singtel mio TV Ch 141 & Starhub TV Ch223)
Dark horses are supposed to be shadowy, but the Belgians have almost perfected their invisibility.
Playing in Group H, far away from Brazil and Argentina's headline hogging and Luis Suarez's dental failings, they have been mostly out of sight and nearly out of mind.
They topped the group with nine points, but plodded rather than cantered. Two 1-0 victories and a 2-1 humdrum affair against Algeria had more in common with Greece than Belgium's golden generation. No one expected Marc Wilmot's team to romp in Rio, but few anticipated that Belgium would be quite so, well, boring.
Eden Hazard has displayed the form that can blight all wingers. He almost achieved anonymity against Russia. His World Cup has so far exonerated Jose Mourinho's sceptism regarding the Chelsea wing man.
He either delights or disappears. He has yet to reach a middle ground of consistency. So far his tournament has exemplified that of the Red Devils. No one has been dreadful, just dreary.
Topping the group might underscore their dark horse credentials, but the pedestrian performances haven't matched the names on the jerseys. Marouane Fellaini, Kevin De Bruyne, Kevin Mirallas and Jan Vertonghen have all contributed surprisingly little so far, apart from the latter's late winner against South Korea.
Competent without ever really capturing the public attention, Belgium are struggling to live up their billing. Romelu Lukaku is just struggling.
When he was withdrawn against Russia, much to his visible frustration, the former Everton striker had played 113 World Cup minutes and touched the ball in the opposition penalty area only once. His attacking impact was negligible.
Like many of the first-teamers, he didn't feature in the dead rubber against the supine South Koreans. Luckily for Lukaku, perhaps, Mirallas and Adnan Januzaj didn't offer much in the way of creative ingenuity either.
A mild malaise appears to be running through the Belgium camp. Their work ethic has been serviceable without ever scaling the heights expected of a golden generation; a hefty moniker, incidentally, that seems to be weighing them down.
Despite conceding just a single goal in the tournament's weakest group, Belgium's defence is malleable. Skipper Vincent Kompany (groin) and Thomas Vermaelen (hamstring) both missed the South Korea game and remain doubtful, while right back Anthony Vanden Borre, who did feature against the Asians, was ruled out of the tournament at the weekend after a scan revealed a cracked fibula.
No wonder Juergen Klinsmann has ordered his players to change their families' return flights from Brazil until after the World Cup Final.
The United States coach continues to polarise opinion in his homeland, where his sunny, go-getting California disposition is culturally at odds with more reserved Germans. His self-help slogans, feel-good lectures, slight West Coast accent and even his khaki slacks open him up for ridicule back home.
In press conferences, his "hell, yeah" positivity is certainly at odds with his passport and sometimes feels like he's about to grab a surfboard and sing, "I wish they all could be California girls." But the Americans adore him for precisely the things that can grate with Germans.
His squad are buying into his Obamaesque "yes, we can" philosophy. They have rescheduled their flights and are coming around to his "anything goes" approach in the knockout stages.
Jozy Altidore has assured the camp he's fit enough to offer the lonely Clint Dempsey some support against Belgium's weaker defence and midfielder Michael Bradley has vowed to raise his game.
American's original automaton is an integral part of Klinsmann's central midfield along with the tenacious Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones, who chomped at the ankles of anything that smelled like Teutonic in the final group game.
Bradley fell off the pace, but has promised to step up against Belgium. The feeling around the American camp, with Klinsmann the self-appointed chief cheerleader, is that the Red Devils are vulnerable, susceptible to the pressure and wary of an early exit.
Heavy lies the crown upon the golden generation. The Belgians laboured under the weight of their reputations in the group stages, but struggled through. Now the underdogs are waiting, draped in the Stars and Stripes and backed by record-breaking TV audiences across North America.
If they are to avoid being suffocated by the Star Spangled Banner, the dark horses must gallop into the light.
Topping the group might underscore their dark horse credentials, but the... performances haven’t matched the names on the jerseys.
— Neil Humphreys
Despite conceding just a single goal in the tournament’s weakest group, Belgium’s defence is malleable.
— Neil Humphreys
We’ve discussed it together – he wants to be more decisive, but there’s a difference between saying it and doing it... there is always a gap. And there is the opponent: Will he leave you enough space?
— Belgium coach Marc Wilmots on midfielder Eden Hazard
US: We're going to ATTACK
PLOTTING: US forward Clint Dempsey (right), seen here in action against Germany, and his teammates plan to go on the attack in their game against Belgium. PHOTO: AFP
Attack will be the best form of defence when the US takes on Belgium tonight for a place in the World Cup quarter-finals, said its coach Juergen Klinsmann.
The US confounded all pre-tournament predictions by battling their way out of a daunting Group G, finishing behind Germany but claiming the runners-up spot ahead of Portugal and Ghana.
Klinsmann acknowledged, however, that his team must improve on last Thursday's 1-0 defeat by the Germans in Recife if they are to provide another shock by eliminating Belgium.
Of particular concern to Klinsmann is his team's attack. According to Fifa statistics compiled after the completion of the first round, the US had just 72 attacks in three games - putting them 31st among 32 teams.
Klinsmann said he wants to buck that trend against a Belgium side who may be missing centre backs Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen, both of whom are battling to recover from injuries.
"It's definitely something we learnt out of the Germany game," Klinsmann said. "We were too deep, especially the first 20 minutes.
"I was screaming my lungs off there to get the back line out and to move the entire unit higher up the field.
"So we'll work on that... to shift the entire game forward and through that put more pressure on the opponent and create more chances. This is really one of our goals."
In two friendlies in the last three years, Belgium have recorded two victories, winning 1-0 in 2011 before recording a 4-2 success away in May last year.
"They are full of individual talent, there's no doubt about it," Klinsmann said. We had the opportunity to play them twice in the last two years. Both times, they came out as the winning team, but we also believe we can have enough confidence going into this very special knockout game to say we are able to beat them."
Meanwhile, Belgium's Daniel van Buyten has fired the first volley even before the game. He called Klinsmann "unimpressive", reported goal.com.
Both men were at German club Bayern Munich but Klinsmann was sacked as its manager five years ago.
"I am not impressed by Klinsmann. He is just a coach who knows how to conduct his group and get the maximum out of them by motivating them," said the 36-year-old. .
Van Buyten had previously claimed Klinsmann went back on his word when he was at Bayern by leaving the player out of a Champions League game after promising he would play.-Wire Services