Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku finally took the umpteenth opportunities of a pulsating game as Belgium survived a late USA rally to reach the FIFA World Cup™ quarter-finals.
The hands, legs and even ankle of Tim Howard, coupled with some supreme defending from Matt Besler, had kept Jurgen Klinsmann’s side, who always looked a threat on the break, in it beforehand, before Marc Wilmots’ men scored twice before the 105-minute mark. A Julian Green volley nevertheless gave the Americans hope, but despite their admirable efforts, the Belgians held on to book a Brasilia date with Argentina.
The American supporters made the decibel levels incalculable in the run-up to kick-off, but they were silent, hearts in mouths, within a minute of action. De Bruyne uncorked USA’s backline and sent the pacy Divock Origi one-on-one with Howard. The 19-year-old striker shot low and hard, but the 35-year-old goalkeeper saved impressively with his legs.
DaMarcus Beasley was USA’s next saviour. Jan Vertonghen broke elegantly down the left and, from the byline, squared the ball towards Marouane Fellaini, who appeared set to tap home until the sliding fullback hacked it clear.
It was all Belgium, with De Bruyne and Eden Hazard snapping at shots from the edge of the box, but the 32nd-minute introduction of DeAndre Yedlin for the injured Fabian Johnson gave the US a lift. The hypersonic wingback had already threatened on a couple of occasions when Michael Bradley’s gorgeous pass sent him racing down the right. A crowd of players expected Yedlin to square the ball from the byline, but he intelligently cut it back into the path of Graham Zusi, who mis-kicked it from a great position nine yards out.
Just like they had in the first half, Belgium came close to breaking the deadlock within 60 seconds of the second. Dries Mertens, the smallest man on the pitch, met De Bruyne’s cross with a looping header which was heading into the net until the fingertips of a leaping Howard tipped it over.
Vertonghen once again found space on the left after 54 minutes and delivered a teasing ball across goal, which somehow eluded Omar Gonzalez, De Bruyne, Besler and Origi and rolled out for a US throw-in.
Howard’s legs again denied Origi on 71 minutes, before it was his ankle’s turn to maintain deadlock. Origi’s delightful, delicate pass with the outside of his boot sent substitute Kevin Mirallas through on goal, but the USA goalkeeper rapidly stuck out his boot and diverted the ball behind.
Besler, a rock throughout, made a brilliant challenge to prevent Mirallas having a clear sight of goal, before Howard made another fine tip-over from an Origi piledriver and Hazard blasted into the side-netting when well placed.
An unlikely source then had Belgium’s final chance of normal time. Vincent Kompany dispossessed Alejandro Bedoya in the Belgian box, galloped upfield and fed De Bruyne out left. The Wolfsburg midfielder cross low into the box and the Manchester City defender, who had continued his run, forced Howard into his umpteenth save of a pulsating match.
Substitute Chris Wondolowski’s composure deserted him when a great opportunity fell his way in injury time, but the offside flag spared his blushes and it was on to an extra 30 minutes.
Belgium required merely two of them to go ahead. Romelu Lukaku, on for Origi, made a purposeful dash down the right. His cut-back was intercepted, but the Americans failed to fully clear their lines. De Bruyne pounced on the loose ball, spun neatly, and fired the ball across Howard and into the back of the net.
Before the referee’s whistle sounded for the next break, it was 2-0. Lukaku raced on to De Bruyne’s through-ball and clipped it past Howard.
The American dream was seemingly over. It took Green two minutes to revive it after being sent on by Klinsmann. With his first touch, the 19-year-old volleyed the ball past Thibaut Courtois to provoke an almighty roar from the pro-USA crowd.
The momentum was now with the Stars and Stripes and Jermaine Jones’ snap-shot went narrowly wide, but despite a valiant effort, Belgium held on for a 2-1 win.
They now head to Brasilia. The USA head home following a World Cup campaign they can be immensely proud of.