It was Canada Day and the way to celebrate it was to sit in front of the television and watch a Round of 16 match from the Brazil World Cup. You might think that is a pretty lame thing to do on a holiday, but once I describe what went on between the two teams you are going to be sorry that you missed it.
Going into this game 7 of the 8 Group winners had already advanced. The pressure was on Belgium and they had everything to lose. They pretty much coasted through the Group stage whereas the United States had to fight for everything and had just scraped through. This was the 6th meeting between the two sides (the two coaches Marc Wilmot (Belgium) and Juergen Klinsmann (U.S.) had met a couple of times as players) with Belgium winning 4 of 5 so far. They had never had a 0-0 scoreline, so you know that this was practically written in the stars.
Fans of Belgium were thrilled to hear that the problems he had been having with his groin were not going to keep captain Vincent Kompany out of the starting line-up. This guy is vital to the team. The one surprise in the Belgium starting 11 was that 19-year-old Divock Origi was getting the start in the lone striker position. Everton striker Romelu Lukaku was starting on the bench and that made sense as he had not had a good tournament so far. Still it took guts for the coach Marc Wilmots to go with the unproven player.
It only took 1 minute for the choice by Wilmots to be borne out as Origi got in on U.S. keeper (and superhero) Tim Howard alone. Howard came out and did what a good keeper is supposed to by making himself big. This challenging of the shooter worked for Howard on this day and on this occasion he made a good kick save. This start was interesting as Belgium has not been quick starters in the tournament so far. Their goals have come in the 70th minute or on so far. Definitely, though, the early momentum was with the favourites, Belgium.
Throughout the match on a hot and humid evening within the stadium the fan support was behind the U.S. Everyone loves an underdog so if you were neutral I guess it was a natural selection. Not everyone in the stadium was there to watch the game as at the 16th minute the game was delayed by a guy running onto the pitch and running around. The Italian protester ran around for a while before he was escorted off by security.
The lively game continued after that little bit of nonsense. On the Belgium side a guy who seemed involved somehow in every important incursion into the U.S. end was winger Kevin De Bruyne – a doppelganger of Prince Harry. In the 23rd minute there was another Belgium break and De Bruyne had Howard seemingly out of position going the wrong way for once, but his shot let him down going wide of the short side. All game long Belgium was most dangerous down De Bruyne’s side (the left).
Belgium attack came in wave after wave with Howard being forced to make one save after another. Besides Origi and De Bruyne, Howard also had to come up big against Eden Hazard in the 1st half. Because of his excellence as Belgium was dominating with the United States only managing a single shot on Thibaut Courtois by Clint Dempsey that was no problem at all for the Belgian keeper.
Things did not change after the half time break for in the 47th minute De Bruyne played a chipped ball into the U.S. penalty area into the path of the onrushing Dries Mertens. Mertens managed to get his head to it, but his well placed header was pushed over the crossbar by Howard.
The U.S. goaltender’s life did not get any easier as the game went on. Despite the heat and the inevitable tiredness in the legs of the Belgians they continued to try and pierce fortress Howard without any success during the 90 minutes of regulation. In his 104th cap for his country Howard was putting on a display of a man much younger. I’m not overselling it as his performance was near record setting. His 16 saves during the game were more than any keeper had made in a World Cup game since 1966.
Belgium’s best chance to score in the 90 minutes came in the 56th minute where striker Origi flicked on a powerful header towards goal that had Howard beaten only for it to strike the crossbar and bounce away harmlessly.
Miraculously in the 1st minute of added time after the 90th, the USA should have won the game with what was a sure goal by substitute striker Chris Wondolowski. The 31-year-old found himself alone in front of Courtois, but somehow shot over the net from close range. He’ll be seeing that time and time again in his nightmares.
The low scoreline was not a surprise to me as the Belgian defense had been very tight so far only allowing 1 goal in their first 3 games and that was on a penalty kick. And the U.S. had that superhero Tim Howard in nets. Another superhero for the U.S., though less noticeable, was midfielder Michael Bradley. The guy was everywhere for the entire 120 minutes of the game. So far in the tournament (before this game) he had run 38 kilometres which was more than any other player.
So we had 2 x 15 minutes of overtime. No golden goal in this part of the competition. Wilmots made a substitution to begin the overtime taking out Origi and inserting Lukaku. This was a difference maker in the game. It took only 3 minutes for him to contribute to a Belgian goal. Lukaku came down the right hand side and slid the ball back to De Bruyne. It looked at first like he got it all wrong, but he somehow found the narrowest of angles to put it in along the ground past Howard just inside the far post. The deadlock was broken. 1-0 Belgium.
At the very end of the 1st overtime period another Belgian break led to Lukaku scoring a goal. Hazard played the ball to De Bruyne, who in turn played it into space in the penalty area. Lakaku ran onto it and made no mistake. His high shot went into the net past Howard. 2-0 Belgium.
Now you would think that U.S. spirit would have been broken, but no they showed a lot of character and a bit of their future in international soccer when in the 107th minute Bradley chipped the ball into the penalty area and 19-year-old substitute Julian Green, after just being on for a few moments, volleyed the ball past Coutois. Green’s shot went off the outside of his foot and off the finger tips of Courtois. At 19 he was the youngest goal scorer at this year’s World Cup and the youngest goal scorer for the U.S. National Team. 2-1 Belgium.
The stadium was buzzing again. U.S. fans had been given renewed life. The U.S. team looked fresh again. They began dominating and the Belgians were the ones holding on. Both Clint Dempsey (113th minute) and Jermaine Jones (108th minute) had great chances. It was now Courtois who was called upon to make great saves. The U.S. was storming the Belgians. Fingernail biting time for Belgian fans.
In the end the better team survived and Belgium crawled away with a 2-1 victory in overtime. They had survived. The U.S. played their hearts out and never quit. They should walk away with their heads held high and I’m sure they won themselves some new fans and respect for the way they played in the tournament.
As a reward the winning team in this game – Belgium – gets to go on to play Argentina in the quarter-finals on July 5th.
-Referee: Djamel Haimoudi (Algeria)
-Goals: 1st Overtime:
93rd minute: Belgium – Kevin De Bruyne
105th minute: Belgium – Romelu Lukaku
107th minute: USA – Julian Green
-Shots on Goal: Belgium – 27
USA – 9
-Corners: Belgium – 19
USA – 4
-Man of the Match: Tim Howard – USA
-Final Score: Belgium – 2
USA -1 (OT)