MICHAEL ADUBATO - Tuesday, July 1, 2014
I have to admit it; I have a soft spot for Belgium and their national soccer team. Well, I've lived in the country for about 20 years, off and on, so I'm sure you can forgive me just a little bit.
I attended Belgian national team games from around the time that I met Cobi Jones and Alexi Lalas outside the then-Heysel Stadium back in 1998 as they prepared for the World Cup in France that year by playing the Belgians in a friendly. The result was the same as all our others against the land divided by a language - we lost. As a matter of fact, we Yanks don't seem to have a very good record against them, having lost four out of five.
True, Belgium is my adopted home and had they been playing any other team I would have no hesitation putting on my Red Devils shirt and going out there to cheer them on. However, I am a born and bred Jersey boy just like three others who play on our national team so when the referee blows the whistle for the kick-off between Belgium and the USA I will be backing the red, white and blue and not the red, black and yellow (or is it gold?).
I'll admit it; the USA hasn't been at its best thus far in Brazil but hey, we're into the next round! Who would have believed it, other than me that we would make it out of the Group of Death? On the other hand, can anybody say that Belgium has been tearing up the pitch and playing like world beaters either? Not me! They came through their group OK but they didn't go up against Germany or Portugal or Ghana. As a matter of fact, they were expected to make it through. We weren't. They could only score once against South Korea, said to be the worst team in Brazil. Marc Wilmots team's performances can best be described as underwhelming.
Man for man and on paper, the USA should be no match for Belgium. They boast a full squad of players who suit up for Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premiership, as well as Spanish champions, Altetico Madrid and Russian league runners-up Zenit St. Petersburg. What do we have but a bunch of MLS players and a handful of German born players who Jurgen Klinsmann skillfully extracted from his home land. It's a no brainer. Or is it?
I have watched some of the Belgian boys from when they were mere children grow into damn fine players. During Oguchi Onyewu's time with Standard Liege where they won back-to-back Belgian championships, there were three youngsters on the team - Steve Defour, Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini. When they won that first title, after a 25 year wait by the Liege fans, all three of these guys started in the midfield. Witsel was 18 years old, Fellaini 19 and Defour also 19. Back then everybody in the country knew that one day these boys would become men and represent Belgium in the World Cup.
There is a cockiness about this team, although you would think that they would have come down a bit closer to earth after these performances and also the fact that last November both Colombia and Japan came to Brussels and beat up on the Red Devils. Sure they beat Luxembourg (100 FIFA places behind them) and Sweden before heading to Brazil but neither of them actually made it to the big show.
Like in every game in every sport, it depends on which team shows up; the impressive Belgium or the ho-hum, why can't we score a goal Belgium. The same goes for the USA. Regardless it will be a fight for a place in the next round if not exactly a "war" as many journalists like to call it.
True, the Belgians have collected all 9 points in the group stages but I have been far from impressed with them. Had they played the same Algeria that Germany struggled to beat last night, the Red Devils would have only collected 6 points and perhaps would have played Germany last night instead of the USA tonight.
By his own admission, Eden Hazard of Chelsea has yet to have a decent game. Sure, he has had flashes of brilliance but not enough to put him on the level with Neymar and Messi. He is very far from that level, no matter what he thinks.
Kevin De Bruyne, formerly of Chelsea but now with Bundesliga team Wolfsburg plays a very important role for the Belgians but he too has yet to impress. Captain Vincent Kompany of Manchester City has played well again, but has also shown lack of concentration at times. Up front they depend on a 19-year old striker with 6 caps in Divock Origi of OSC Lille, when Romelu Lukaku is not playing, and Lukaku seems to have been replaced by the teen.
The good news for the USA is that Jozy Altidore should suit up for this game. The Jersey-born 24-year-old has really been missed. If Altidore is able to start, Jurgen Klinsmann can switch back to 4-4-2, thus allowing Clint Dempsey a bit more flexibility and freedom to roam up front. This should also keep the USA from having to defend in their own half as much as they have done over the past three games.
Let me tell you; I am optimistic that the USA can triumph. One thing for sure is that it will be one crazy night in downtown Mons, where I live, in the southern part of Belgium. I am prepared to head into the main square draped in my American flag but at the same time, a bit concerned. With Belgium being sent home, it could be a very dangerous time behind enemy lines; especially as a Yank abroad!