Belgium sneak past the United States in extra time

Kevin C. Cox

And Chelsea's Belgian players were heavily involved.

What a game of football. On a day when Lionel Messi's Argentina and Xherdan Shaqiri's Switzerland nearly conspired to kill the football world with boredom, Belgium and the United States popped up with an absolute classic of a match to enliven the senses. On a purely-technical level, sure, it wasn't one of the great matches of our time, but in every other way, it was.

For all the thunder and drama in this match, it might have been all-but-over inside a minute as Former Blue Kevin De Bruyne fed Divock Origi with a golden chance, only to see it denied by the strong leg of Tim Howard. With a pitch invader and a horrific KDB miss being the only real highlights,  the first half-hour was a cagey affair marked by poor midfield pressure by both sides. The end-to-end play favoured Belgium, but the Everton keeper was the hero in what was rapidly becoming the over-arching narrative of the match.

In the thirty-first minute, America's Fabian Johnson went off with a hamstring injury, replaced by the young DeAndre Yedlin. The youngster, tasked with marking an ever-more-fluent Eden Hazard, wasn't expected to cope by many, but he did, springing forward ahead into the Belgian half. But for a few poor touches, the US might have had several great chances before the half to match those stopped by Howard.

The second half began much as the first half did. Howard was forced into save from Dries Mertens after a good cross from Kevin De Bruyne. Unlike the first half, in which the US grew into the game after a shaky first few minutes, Belgium were firmly on top. They couldn't make their pressure pay, however, through a combination of poor finishing and more great saves from Howard.

On the hour mark, the introduction of Kevin Mirallas for Dries Mertens allowed Belgium to ramp up the pressure even more. As with the rest of the match, Tim Howard was the American saviour, coming up with some of the best of his record 16 saves. One of the best coming against Chelsea's Eden Hazard, who attempted to curl a shot past him into the far corner.

In second half stoppage time, and looking exasperated with their inability to score, Belgium allowed the Americans the best chance of the match. It fell to Chris Wondolowski, who, one-on-one with Chelsea's Thibaut Courtois, skied his shot lamely over the Belgian keeper. Thankfully for his dignity, it wouldn't have counted, since the linesman incorrectly ruled it offside.

With 90 minutes not being enough to settle one of the more thrilling 0 - 0 draws you'll see, it went to extra time. With Chelsea's perennial loanee Romelu Lukaku came on, with immediate impact. Big Rom fed KDB in the box who controlled it to poke it past the heroic Howard. Ten minutes later, the two reversed their roles, with Ginger Messi finding Baby Drogba, who finished smartly past Howard.

While the United States could have collapsed in the second half of extra time like a cheap umbrella in a monsoon, they didn't. Bayern Munich's young Julian Green was introduced in the break. After ten minutes full of more Belgian chances, Michael Bradley found Green, who looped a ball past Courtois to halve the deficit. It was Courtois' first goal conceded from open play in over six hours of World Cup play.

Having taken off Eden Hazard moments earlier for Nacer Chadli, Marc Wilmots saw his plan to sit back nearly backfire. The US ramped up the pressure on the Belgian back line. Unfortunately, their pressure couldn't generate another chance greater than their best of the match, whenstill down 2-0. The American side had won a dangerous free kick on the edge of the area. Instead of try to get the ball up and down, they attempted an audacious free kick routine. The ball fell to Clint Dempsey who tested Courtois to the full extent of his ability. Thankfully for the Belgians, the Chelsea goalkeeper is one of the world's best.

After 120 breath-taking minutes, a Belgian win was probably the right result, but an American win, or even penalties, wouldn't have felt an injustice. It was truly one of the better matches of this World Cup, and remained tense until the bitter end. Ultimately, it was the quality of Belgium which saw them through to face Argentina in the quarter final. When one talks of Belgian quality, the name Chelsea naturally comes up quite a bit. With three players and a recently-departed one in the squad, Chelsea's impact was decisive.

Eden Hazard, often so brilliant in blue, but less so for Belgium had a decent match, combining with his team-mates to create several of the chances so heroically saved by Tim Howard. Ultimately, his most direct impact was on the decisive goal, having found Kevin De Bruyne, who found Lukaku.

Speaking of Lukaku, the Chelsea striker found himself out of favour and left on the bench, with the even-younger Origi preferred for this match. His introduction in extra time was the key to the Belgian victory, having played a big part in both goals, scoring what turned out to be the ultimate winner.

At the other end, Chelsea's future No. 1 had a relatively-easy night. He faced only a few shots in normal time, coming up big at each and keeping a 90-minute clean sheet. The biggest save he had to make was the Dempsey chance from the late free kick. As he has been so many times for Atletico Madrid and Belgium -- for whom he has never lost -- he stood tall and made the huge save.

While no longer a Chelsea player, Kevin De Bruyne was probably the Belgian man of the match. He featured in nearly every good move the Red Devils made on the night. While he rarely, if ever, showed that kind of form at Stamford Bridge, it was the kind of performance to remind us of just why we were all so positive about him.

It was a great match, and it's something of a shame that one of these teams had to head home, but, from a Chelsea perspective, it's good to see more of our guys moving on to face Argentina in the next round. Hopefully, they'll continue to show more of the promise of tonight, rather than the form of their turgid group stage campaign.

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