2014 FIFA World Cup: What we learned, Day 15
Portugal beats Ghana, which helps send the United States -- which lost to Germany 1-0 -- through to the Round of 16.
At the end of each day of action at the 2014 World Cup, our writers weigh in on what we learned from each match.
Job done for the United States: It certainly wasn't the best match the United States has played thus far -- and it did need some help -- but the United States is through to the knockout stage. Portugal beating Ghana certainly helped, but the United States' backline was actually impressive for most of the match. The decision to start Omar Gonzalez in place of Geoff Cameron was questioned somewhat before the match, but Gonzalez was excellent. He made a couple of desperation clearances in the first half, and then challenged Mesut Ozil on a header inside the six-yard box in the second half. There were some communication issues between he and Matt Besler early on, but they figured it out fairly quickly. Germany actually didn't have a ton of clear chances inside the 18, as most of the attacks involved going up the flanks and then crossing it in. Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman also played well, while Graham Zusi tracked back effectively and DeAndre Yedlin was terrific as a sub. Things start fresh in the knockout stage, and the United States will be playing.
Germany is among the World Cup favorites, but ...: Germany still has some issues, despite winning the group and notching two clean sheets. The defense has been vulnerable, especially against Ghana. They are essentially playing with four center backs along the backline, which has meant they are susceptible to speed down the flanks. Ghana really exploited that weakness, attacking left back Benedikt Howedes, and the United States' best chances came on the counter from the right side. Germany has also been a bit inconsistent in the center of the park, with Phillipp Lahm looking questionable in his holding midfielder role. He's been dispossessed a couple of times, leading to chances on the counterattack. Thomas Muller's goal-scoring has bailed them out at times, but Germany will need to figure some things out in their own half of the field.
What's up with Michael Bradley? Heading into the World Cup, Bradley was the United States' best -- or most important, at the very least -- player. He was the rock in the spine of the team, their best defensive midfielder and their best playmaker. The diamond that Jurgen Klinsmann used in the friendlies was essentially to put Bradley up the pitch, where he could do the most damage. Through three World Cup matches, though, he has struggled. Against Ghana, he was very poor on the ball. His mistake against Portugal did cost the United States' a couple of points, but he was generally effective for most of that game. On Thursday, it was a struggle. Bradley was consistently dispossessed, or couldn't control the ball, or didn't make the right pass. If the United States is to have any chance against Belgium, he needs to go back to being the influential midfielder he was before the competition.
What's next? The United States will face Belgium in the Round of 16. Belgium is one of the most talented teams in Europe, and has some of the best club players in the world. They were a darkhorse a couple of years ago, but they received so much hype, they ended up being among the top five or six favorites to win the World Cup. Eden Hazard is extremely dangerous on the wing, while Kevin de Bruyne always seems to make an impact for them. Vincent Kompany leads a big defense, and Thibaut Courtois is perhaps the best goalkeeper in the world.
Thanks, Cristiano!: Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo giveth, and Cristiano Ronaldo taketh away. Or something, kinda. Ronaldo facilitated the goal Sunday that put the United States' chances of moving on in question, and scored Thursday to bury Ghana -- the team on the heels of the US. This was obviously not the outcome Ronaldo had hoped for in the World Cup, and it's only natural to wonder if his knee problems had anything to do with that. Regardless, he got the job done today for the Americans, so kudos to you, fine sir!
Team turmoil: The only chance Ghana had to get through was a win coupled with a US loss. Ghana did not seem like a team prepared to win Thursday. There was a week of trouble and apparent in-fighting culminating with the suspensions of Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari. Their chances were slim to begin with, but Ghana didn't do itself many favors. Their play, however, was solid, as they created plenty of chances on their third. It just wasn't to be.
Belgium wins Group H: Belgium won all three of its matches to finish atop Group H and reserve a date with the United States in the knockout rounds. Just because it finished with nine points doesn't mean this Belgian side should be feared, though. All three of its wins were by one goal, including a come-from-behind victory to open group play against Algeria (also moving on). All four of its goals -- yes, four goals is all it took to win every match in Group H -- came after the 70th minute. Jurgen Klinsmann is undoubtedly aware of that and will remind his players of that incessantly.
In short, Belgium entered the World Cup as a team loaded with individual talents, and throughout the first two games, their cohesion never really materialized. Manager Marc Wilmots, even today against South Korea, was still searching for the right attacking combinations. He chose to rest some of his stars rather than continue to build chemistry amongst his midfielders and strikers, and that's a gamble he hopes pays off against the US.
Belgium will be rested: The US has been through the ringer. From injuries to travel inconveniences to the weather, Jurgen Klinsmann's team deserved to get out of Group G with four points. The same cannot be said, however, about Belgium. Heading into Thursday's match against South Korea, all it needed to do was earn a draw and it would win the group. That afforded Wilmots the chance to rest Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Toby Alderweireld. That's not insignificant at all.
The US envied Belgium's favorable group (not that Klinsmann would make any excuses) and it envied how it advanced with relative easy. The flip side of that coin is that the US has been tested, much more thoroughly than this Belgian side has. That resistance (the aforementioned injuries, the let down to Portugal) has groomed the US to earn a positive result against Belgium, even if there might be a talent disparity.
Algeria through: It was a fight, but Algeria was able to make it through to the knockout stage. They fell behind Russia early, but a second half goal pulled them even, which was enough for second place in Group H. Algeria will face Germany Monday in its first Round of 16 game.
No easy task: Frankly, Algeria hardly appears to be a side able to compete with Germany. Their attack Thursday was clumsy at times, and their defense flimsy. They benefitted from some solid stops by Rais Mbolhi in goal, but they allowed Russia far too many good chances. Germany won't let those go by quite as easily next week.
The best chance for Algeria will be to take advantage of a German side that has shown vulnerabilities defensively. There's very little chance Algeria can get past Germany with just a single goal, so their attackers -- Islam Slimani and Sofiane Feghouli, primarily -- will have to be in top form.
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