Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Ashley Cole. An illustrious lot, these world footballing stars would make the starting XI of just about every squad on the planet and are known from the Midwest to the Midlands.
Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard. While making strides in European leagues, this bunch do not exactly strike fear in their opponents.
But when these players clash on Saturday in Rustenberg, South Africa, you can throw their disparate reputations out the window. This is 90 minutes of football, and to the victor go the spoils.
This is where on the pitch the match will be won or lost:
Michael Bradley vs. Frank Lampard:
Coming off of another monster season where he scored 27 goals in all competitions, Chelsea’s heartbeat Lampard can dictate matches with expert passing and positioning, or by thundering a lightning bolt goal from 30 yards out. Because the U.S. does not employ a holding midfielder in their 4-4-2 formation, Lampard will be difficult to contain.
Unless American coach Bob Bradley alters his regular formation, his son Michael will have to be extremely disciplined and restrained in linking up with the U.S. attack, and will have to help his midfield partner (most likely Ricardo Clark, Edu, or Jose Torres) in denying Lampard the space between midfield and defense that the English star is a master at exploiting. Bradley is America’s best central midfielder, displaying good composure on the pitch and a fine footballing IQ. Rarely caught out of position, he will have to play his finest match to give the U.S. a chance.
Bradley and his partner will have to keep tight on Lampard, denying him the space he needs to operate. If given space anywhere on the pitch, Lampard has the ability to pick out a defense-splitting pass or simply reversing the field with accurate long-range passing. When the Chelsea talisman gets the ball, an American must press him and knock him off his rhythm, and never allow him to create his own long-range blast which can turn a game on its head in a heartbeat.
Landon Donovan vs. Glen Johnson (or Ashley Cole):
This matchup is dependent on where Bob Bradley elects to start Donovan. The better matchup for the U.S. is for their star player to line up against Liverpool’s Glen Johnson, for the simple fact that Ashley Cole is better than Johnson. For all his attacking flair, Johnson is vulnerable in his defensive positioning, and the U.S. must exploit this when given the chance.
In his time at Everton, Donovan showed that he can be a serious threat when operating as a true, old-fashioned English winger: running at fullbacks and to the byline, keeping defenders on their heels. This is beneficial for two reason. One, Donovan can outmaneuver Johnson and get past him creating dangerous situations for the English defense. And two, keeping Johnson back in defense negates his ability to contribute to the attack, where he is most effective.
If Bradley elects to start Donovan on the right against Ashley Cole, the task is a much taller order. Cole is arguably the best left-back in the world who has made Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo look devastatingly ordinary. With an indefatigable style, Cole can stifle any winger defensively, and after the opposition avoids his flank, he can act as an auxiliary left-winger for the English attack, whipping in fine crosses for teammates to latch onto.
Oguchi Onyewu vs. Wayne Rooney:
The tallest task for the American team is stopping Wayne Rooney, and much of that will fall on the broad shoulders of Milan’s Onyewu. “Gooch” lacked playing time at Milan due in large part to injury, so having to face the English Player of the Year in his first match is not exactly ideal. Although Rooney has looked subdued since his April ankle injury at Bayern Munich, do not doubt that Wazza will bring his A game to South Africa.
And unfortunately for the U.S., that A game translates into a very tough England team. Stopping Rooney is out of the question, containing him is not, however. It will have to be a team effort, and not solely on Onyewu and central defensive partner Jay Demerit. Capable of dropping deep to dictate play, spreading the ball around with near Xavi-like precision on his day, playing off the shoulder of defenders and turning them with world-class acceleration, or simply bulldozing his way into the box to score, Rooney is a true all-around attacker. The man is simply on another footballing level than anyone in the American side.
So how do Onyewu and co contain him?
Perhaps the best remedy, as Jay Demerit has publicly suggested, is to wind Rooney up, to get in his head to the point that he pulls one of his vintage meltdowns. That means coming in hard on the tackle, give him zero space, and get physical at every opportunity. Because if Rooney is allowed to meander about the pitch and control the match with nary a frustrating challenge, he could single-handedly win the game.
While there are many more intriguing matchups across the pitch, these three should be the most pivotal. The team that wins these encounters will win the match.
What other matchups do you consider key to the outcome of this much-anticipated match? Leave your thoughts below.