Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Scouting Report: Belgium

By Clemente Lisi, US National Team Players Association

Following a 1-0 loss to Costa Rica, the United States takes on up-and-coming Belgium on Tuesday in Jurgen Klinsmann’s first test on European soil as US National Team coach. Belgium - 37th in the FIFA World Rankings and 22nd among European teams - has something to prove in front of a home crowd in Brussels.

“They’ve got some good individual players,” US defender Carlos Bocanegra said. “It’s going to be a tough game and another challenge for us. They are a quality team in Europe and it’s good for some of our younger guys to get that opportunity. It will be a good test for us.”

Belgium was one of Europe’s better teams for much of the 1980s and ‘90s, producing players such as goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff, defender Eric Gerets, midfielder Jan Ceulemans and striker Enzo Scifo. These days, Belgium is working on trying to reclaim some of that past glory. They're relying on a generation of players like goalkeeper Jean-Francois Gillet, defender Vincent Kompany, midfielder Moussa Dembele and striker Romelu Lukaku.

Like other National Teams across Europe, Belgium is a multi-ethnic squad, using players who are the sons of immigrants that moved to the country over the past 20 years. At the same time, the team has also benefited from policies put in place a decade ago by many of the country’s first division clubs aimed at developing youth players.

As expected when playing in Europe, he Americans shouldn't have it easy against Belgium. The Red Devils are solid in many parts of the field. Belgium's 24-man roster for the US friendly features five players based in England’s Premier League. On defense, Kompany uses his size and strength to muscle players off the ball just like he does every week for Manchester City. In attack, Lukaku, who signed with Chelsea over the summer, uses bursts of speed and energy to create scoring chances, while Axel Witsel possess a powerful shot. The glue that brings all these components together is midfielder Timmy Simons. The 34-year-old has been capped 83 times since 2001 and has been a regular in the lineup for the past seven years.

Belgium is in the midst of trying to reach the finals of the 2012 European Championship. Currently in third place behind Germany in Group A, they have a 3-3-2 record and is competing with Austria and Turkey for a chance at the 14 remaining spots up for grabs for the 16-nation tournament (after Poland and Ukraine automatically earned participation as co-hosts) that will be played next summer.

Belgium has been coached by Georges Leekens since 2010. He is in his second spell as coach following a two-year stint back in the 1990's. In April, Belgium’s FA rewarded Leekens for his team’s results, extending his contract another two years so that it would terminate in December 2014. A master tactician and author of several coaching books, Leekens is devoted to fielding a strong backline and a scrappy four-man midfield.

When needed, they will play a physical style normally not associated with coaches as tacticians. Timmy Simons is one of the most aggressive players out there, committing 19 fouls in 606 minutes – the second-most in the Euro 2012 Qualifying tournament. Fellow midfielder Marouane Fellaini is ranked fifth, recording 15 after clocking 351 minutes.

While Leekens may at times shun creativity in favor of a muscular defense, it doesn’t mean that Belgium isn’t an offensive threat. Leekens’s squad has mastered the ability to surprise opponents, especially against the run of play, and have effectively used that to score goals. The US defense and midfield will need to avoid that effective trap. A perfect example was Belgium’s 2-0 road win this past year against Austria. While Austria controlled the pace of the game and most of the possession, the Belgians took an early 1-0 lead with Witsel and was dangerous on the break. A second Witsel goal after halftime finished off the game.

This past Friday, Belgium did not look so impressive in its Euro ’12 Qualifier against minnows Azerbaijan. The 1-1 draw put a dent in Belgium’s chances of reaching the European Championship, dropping them to third place and a point behind Turkey with two games left. After taking the lead thanks to a Simons penalty kick, Azerbaijan tied the score with four minutes remaining when Belgium’s defense left Rauf Aliyev unmarked in the box. Aliyev headed the ball in for the easy goal.

One American player, Sacha Kljestan, is familiar with Belgium. Kljestan, the former Chivas USA defender, joined Belgian club Anderlect last year, scoring four goals in 28 games for the club. He is a teammate of Lukaku and defender Denis Odoi and will likely see more playing time than the 24 minutes he saw against Costa Rica as a second-half sub for Robbie Rogers.

The Americans, meanwhile, are coming off a surprise loss against Costa Rica in a game the US dominated for long stretches, especially during the first-half. For Klinsmann, the Belgium friendly gives him a chance to test players against a quality European side.

While Europe is familiar territory to the former German international, the Americans have traditionally struggled on the continent. The USA has not played away from home this year and will be without Landon Donovan (who returns to the Los Angeles Galaxy for MLS duty), while Fulham's Clint Dempsey will likely play his first game under Klinsmann.

This is the first meeting between the USA and Belgium since 1998 and the fourth overall. In two of those matches played in Belgium, the USA failed to score. Overall, Belgium holds a 2-1-0 advantage in the all-time series. For Klinsmann, it's a chance for his first win in his third game in charge of the USA.

“Belgium will be another good experience,” Klinsmann said. “We want to try to develop that style of play that we are confident on the ball and that we try to pass our way through difficult situations and tight spaces. It will take time.”


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