52913_wilmotsmarc_isi_bpi_englvbelg.f2ut Marc Atkins/isiphotos.com

Here's How Belgium Will Attack the United States

The Americans won't be the only team on the field in Cleveland Wednesday night. Jon Arnold talkes to Belgian soccer blogger Gary Niblock, who gives impressive insight into the plans of manager Marc Wilmots.
BY Jon Arnold Posted
May 29, 2013
1:50 PM
The American Soccer Now reader lives and breathes the U.S. team. You’ve read the preview, you know who needs to step up, and you’ve even filled out your starting XI. All that’s left now is to learn about the star-studded Belgians who are in town tonight. We talked to Gary Niblock, the founder and Belgian editor of BeNeFoot, a site dedicated to English coverage of the game in Belgium and The Netherlands, and he gives you all the knowledge you need to be the smartest–and most annoyingly knowledgeable–guy at tonight’s watch party.

We know the context of this match for the United States and we know Belgium will return to Europe for a World Cup qualifier against Serbia. What will the visitors be looking to learn from the friendly in Cleveland?
First of all, it's worth breaking down the individual components of this international break. The get-together before this game was seen by coach Marc Wilmots as an ideal chance to bring the players together for a training camp after the club season has (mostly) finished, time of course being at a premium for international coaches. The unavailability of some players due to ongoing club commitments (Axel Witsel and Nicolas Lombaerts at Zenit and Thibaut Courtois at Atletico Madrid, for instance) means that Wilmots has had the chance to look at the likes of Zulte Waregem's Thorgan Hazard (on loan from Chelsea) and Club Brugge's Maxime Lestienne at close quarters.

Wilmots was very quick to accept the invitation because he also wanted to see how the players would respond to a long journey ahead of any eventual qualification for Brazil 2014. From this game itself, Wilmots plans to select his strongest available team: Mignolet, Gillet, Kompany, Vermaelen, Vertonghen (a doubt), Fellaini, De Bruyne, Dembélé, Mirallas, Benteke, Merten (though one TV network seems to think Defour and Lukaku will start). This eleven tells us that he will use the game as a chance to see Thomas Vermaelen in action as the center back is out of favor at Arsenal (though there are no such worries at the national team level in the short term at least), Fellaini playing as the deepest lying midfielder, which he actually prefers to his more advanced role for Everton, De Bruyne back in the midfield three as the "10" as opposed to playing wide and Dries Mertens, whom I'll touch upon later, has another opportunity to prove his worth.

From the outside looking in, this seems to be an incredibly talented team. What weaknesses are lurking that Jurgen Klinsmann would be wise to exploit?
As we have seen so often, talent alone and names alone do not make a team. Throughout the qualification group, the side has rarely made a fast start to games. Of course, they have gone on to get results and they did recover from an early Croatian goal in Brussels to draw, but before the away game in Skopje, they had not scored in the first 30 minutes of a qualifier. Clearly, there will not be the same pressure surrounding this game tonight, but it would be interesting to see how they would respond if the United States came flying out of the blocks. Statistically, the team are very good defensively, but Gillet is clearly not an ideal option at right back - though he plays there for his club Anderlecht, he's seen by most people as more effective farther forward. He does, however, apply himself well and has done better than some of his critics expected. If Vertonghen does not make it, then Sébastien Pocognoli has a lot to prove. I am a long-standing fan but he can often be too rash in the tackle and a bit kamikaze going forward, though Wilmots claims he has seen progress since Poco joined Hannover 96. At the other end, I feel they do not get the best out of whoever the striker is, be it Benteke or Lukaku but that's surely something they will be working on because for all the great midfield talent, that cutting edge in attack can make all the difference against the best international sides. Still, Benteke and Lukaku are much more attractive options than someone like Wesley Sonck was a few years ago and both the midfield and the attack must work at that.

With the young talent on this team in mind and its successful start to the qualifying campaign, how high are Belgian fans’ expectations for the current generation of the team?
Without wishing to speak on behalf of almost eleven million people, it's understandable that a groundswell of optimism has swept through the whole country, and the progress the team has made has reinvigorated the national team in Belgium. People expect qualification, either automatically or through the play-offs not just because of the talent Wilmots has at its disposal but because the fans can clearly see the strides that have been made. Already we have lots of Brazil 2014 flags and related merchandise flying about, but I wouldn't put that down to overconfidence; it's also because of the fact there is a team they can believe in and identify with and one who can end the absence from major tournaments since 2002. Of course, Brazil is seen as the first hurdle but mere qualification is the biggest and most important one to clear, and as I keep telling people who do not follow Belgian football so closely, they are far from qualified yet!

Most American fans are familiar with the Premier League and La Liga stars who dot the Belgian roster. Who is a player that’s not a name heard every weekend but who still will contribute to the national team?
If I take the question at face value, given that the strongest team would contain 10 players who play in either England, Germany, or Spain, that only leaves one man and that's the aforementioned Guillaume Gillet, who in many ways is quite fortunate to be the only right back in the picture (Toby Alderweireld is really a centreback, Luis Cavanda is yet to receive a call-up though some clamor for Zulte Waregem's Davy De fauw as a short-term option), and he has just lifted another title with Anderlecht, alongside your very own Sacha Kljestan of course.

However, I'd rather take this opportunity to highlight PSV winger Dries Mertens. Let go by Anderlecht and never given a chance at the first-team level by KAA Gent, he made his way to the Netherlands with second-tier outfit AGOVV, where he impressed enough to move to Utrecht and then to PSV. He is their outstanding player and gave more assists than anyone else in the Eredivisie last season, but he chips in with plenty of goals as well. He is often used as a substitute for Belgium but due principally to Eden Hazard, has never been considered as a regular starter, in spite of Hazard's below-par performances until late. The home game with Turkey in the previous campaign and the glamour friendly win over the Dutch back in August were testament to his impact off the bench, but on the other hand, he was taken off after 45 minutes in Skopje recently. But he remains a potent weapon to bring on if things aren't going Belgium's way. I'm pleased he will start tonight.

What’s something most Americans don’t know about the Belgian team–or Belgium itself–but should?
As you would say in baseball parlance, you've thrown me a curveball there. I'm not sure how aware people would be of the diverse nature of the country with its various communities, regions, and linguistic communities. The football team is playing a very important role in standing above a federal structure, which it could be argued makes such divisions endemic and permanent.

Wilmots is very well known from his playing days and at times he really did carry the Red Devils on his broad shoulders, as well as being an outstanding player for Standard Liège and Schalke 04 in particular. You may remember Belgium's elimination at the hands of Brazil in the 2002 World Cup. The memories remain as raw as ever for the fans. But Wilmots, having had the goal inexplicably disallowed (1:50 in the video below), still bears a grudge to this day, and I'd say "outsiders" as it were are not really aware just quite how determined he is to go some way toward righting that wrong by taking Belgium back to the World Cup and ensuring they do themselves justice. Thanks again to Gary for his time and expertise. Make sure you check out BeNeFoot , and follow Gary on Twitter @goalGary for more information on the Belgian team.

Jon Arnold (@ArnoldcommaJon) is a writer based in Arizona and is ASN's CONCACAF correspondent.

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