In many ways, it’s a classic matchup: A team with real belief whose sum is greater than its individual parts, against a sleeker, more fancied, more talented bunch who has a sum that is frustratingly less than its individual pieces.
Perhaps that’s why the United States and Belgium – on paper, just as it was last summer on a muggy night in Cleveland, a blowout – has become too close to call.
While the US have impressed with their spirit and certain moments of individual brilliance in escaping the Group of Death, Belgium have befuddled on their shaky path to three first round wins.
In June 2013 when Marc Wilmots’ team beat Jurgen Klinsmann’s 4-2, Belgium was the World Cup dark horse – fifth favorites behind the big four of Brazil, Spain, Argentina and Germany to win the whole thing.
But Belgium, despite taking those nine points from their first three games, only led for 24 minutes of group play.
Without Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku has toiled and become frustrated, while brilliant young talents like Eden Hazard and Jean Vertonghen haven’t meshed; so much so that it’s the old guard – Daniel Van Buyten – and the unfancied guard – Divock Origi – have carried the team.
With each passing game – a comeback win against plucky Algeria, a last-gasp winner against Russia, and a mentally slow performance against flimsy South Korea – the question has become less when Belgium will click, and turned to will Belgium click at all?
Certainly, Wilmots is feeling the heat. Increasingly feisty with the media, the former captain also has injury concerns. Center-back and leader Vincent Kompany has missed training and questionable to play, while Thomas Vermaelan also might miss out.
If Belgium bows out here, Wilmots is most likely out of a job, and the Red Devils will have had one of the most disappointing tournaments of any nation in Brazil.
For Jurgen Klinsmann’s troops, it’s optimism abound. Before the tournament, Klinsmann was reaffirming his disconcerting statement that the US couldn’t win the World Cup.
Now, he’s told his team to book their return flights from Brazil for the day after the final.
The American’s achievement is huge. Their opportunity, in a wide-open World Cup where no one is playing great – looms larger. Here are key matchups to watch.
Belgium fullbacks v. American fullbacks – It’s the most underplayed, underrated position in soccer, but fullbacks can be key indeed. Belgium know this all too well.