SALVADOR, Brazil (AP) — The stirring performance against the United States provided a shot in the arm for Belgium, and some more.
Now, with its reputation restored in the wake of a 2-1 victory over the Americans in the second round of the World Cup, Belgium is looking full of confidence ahead of the match against Argentina in Saturday’s quarterfinals.
“Argentina must have some doubts now,” Belgium coach Marc Wilmots said.
Belgium produced a relentless series of attacks against the Americans, while their defense only started showing cracks in the final minutes of extra time.
In group play, Belgium had made it abundantly clear it was excellent in defense, but three low-scoring, one-goal victories had cast doubt that its forward line could create chances.
Then came 27 shots on goal against the Americans.
It took the best goalkeeping performance of this World Cup from Tim Howard to keep the U.S. team in the match until extra time, but the attacks just never stopped.
And again, Wilmots made savvy substitutions to finally force a way through.
Teenage striker Divock Origi first tired the opposing defense for 90 minutes and peppered Howard with several shots and headers. He then made way for Romelu Lukaku in extra time.
After three minutes, Lukaku was the master behind the first goal when the stretched U.S. defense failed to fully clear his cross, allowing Kevin De Bruyne to steal it back and score from close range.
De Bruyne returned the favor by setting up Lukaku for a booming drive that turned out to be the decisive goal.
“We knew that he could be the hero of the night,” Belgium captain Vincent Kompany said. “It was so predictable.”
It was almost uncanny that two rejects of Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho – Lukaku was twice sent on loan, and De Bruyne was transferred during the winter break – have been providing the goods for Wilmots in World Cup qualifying and at the tournament in Brazil.
And Mourinho’s protege, Eden Hazard, again failed to make the creative impact for Belgium. Instead, the sparkling play came from De Bruyne, who revitalized his career over the past months with Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga.
In truth, beyond Howard, the United States looked to be the easiest opponent in the second round with a spongy defense that somehow did not get totally overrun by first-round opposition.
Argentina should be a lot tougher, having conceded only three goals in four games.
Kompany should know what he is up against since he will be playing Manchester City teammates Martin Demichelis and Pablo Zabaleta, who usually are part of his line of defense.
And what’s more, the Belgians will no longer be favored against a team which includes Lionel Messi.
“That is a role that will now suit us,” Kompany said.
Follow Raf Casert on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert