The 2014 FIFA World Cup is inching closer to the knockout stage, as Saturday's action fostered three compelling matches in group play.
In the opener, one of the tournament favorites in Argentina had a difficult time handling Iran. After more than 90 minutes, superstar striker Lionel Messi delivered the winner in stoppage time, giving his side another three points and a 1-0 victory.
ESPN's Paul Carr noted the historical significance of Messi's amazing goal:
Lionel Messi (90'+1) scores Argentina's latest-ever #WorldCup goal in regulation (excluding extra time).— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) June 21, 2014
Another prominent contender in Germany was on the pitch to battle a tough Ghana team. The underdogs were coming off a tough loss to the United States, yet they came out with enthusiasm and tied the Eagles 2-2.
That made the plot thicken in Group G, per ESPN:
The Group of Death just got very interesting. pic.twitter.com/Aramnk3Y6u— ESPN (@espn) June 21, 2014
The finale of the three fixtures featured Nigeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both were seeking to get an outright win and solidify a second-place slot in the Group F table. That only added to the intensity of the match, where Nigeria came out on top 1-0 to eliminate the Dragons.
Belgium will bid to seize control of Group H on Sunday by beating Russia, while the Korea Republic and Algeria are hoping for Russia to lose so that they can get into the top two. But the headliner comes in the last Sunday match when the USA meets Portugal.
Here is a look ahead at the Day 11 schedule, followed by predictions as to how that trio of fixtures will play out on Sunday in Brazil.
|12 p.m.||Belgium vs. Russia||ABC||2-0 Belgium|
|3 p.m.||Korea Republic vs. Algeria||ABC||1-0 Algeria|
|6 p.m.||United States vs. Portugal||ESPN||2-1 United States|
Belgium vs. Russia
Perhaps Belgium looked ahead too much to this match in struggling to defeat Algeria to begin its likely advancement through Group H. At least coach Marc Wilmots' squad can learn through winning and reigning superior over its three group-stage adversaries.
The Red Devils' current nucleus has been dubbed the "golden generation," and it will be keen to capitalize on its potential after falling a bit short of the hype to start its World Cup pursuit.
The young core can rally around its success in qualifying and the resilience it's shown in Brazil early. ESPN Stats & Info alluded to the adversity Belgium warded off to gain an edge in the standings:
Belgium is the 6th team to win after conceding the first goal at this #WorldCup. It happened 3 times in all of the 2010 World Cup.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 17, 2014
Russia was fortunate to register a point itself versus the Korea Republic, getting a clutch equalizer from Aleksandr Kerzhakov in the 74th minute. It was facing a foe that was really trying to protect a lead, but the failure to generate a lot of quality chances wasn't promising for Russia's future prospects in the tournament.
A desperate opponent is a dangerous one, so Russia can't be completely discounted. Having said that, if the Belgians are even near their best, three points won't be hard to come by.
A strong defence is anchored by captain Vincent Kompany. Combine that with a speedy attack keyed by the likes of Chelsea dynamos Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard, and Belgium has too much firepower on both ends for Russia to combat.
Prediction: Belgium 2, Russia 0
Korea Republic vs. Algeria
To be frank, neither of these sides is expected to figure prominently in the World Cup picture, but if heavy favorite Belgium does indeed knock off Russia, they have golden opportunities at hand.
Algeria fought well to lose just 2-1 to Belgium, so it has to have some confidence from that result despite failing to emerge with a point and being spotted a 1-0 lead. The Big Lead's Jason McIntyre analyzed the unfortunate turn of events for what could have been a big upset:
Korea Republic also let three points slip away to Russia, instead settling for one due to a conservative approach to the second half that proved costly.
Bound to be eager to avenge those underwhelming outcomes and play aggressively, this showdown should feature plenty of drama. It's a power struggle to take control of the two clubs' respective paths moving forward, and they fought harder than expected to start the World Cup.
Given how much is at stake, this figures to be a match in which the sides are trying so hard to prove themselves that it turns into a sloppily executed display. That won't take away from the intensity, but the quality of football may slightly suffer from pressing too often.
The stalwart defence Algeria deploys, along with a superior attack led by attacking midfielder Sofiane Feghouli—last match's goalscorer, who can create for others, too—will allow the Greens to emerge with a hard-fought win.
Prediction: Algeria 1, Korea Republic 0
United States vs. Portugal
After being dismantled 4-0 by Germany in the opener, Portugal is in a massive hole and in danger of not getting out of the group stage. Part of the lopsided outcome was to blame on the red card registered by Pepe, which left his side short-handed for more than half the match.
Striker Cristiano Ronaldo must step up for Portugal to have any hope of getting off the mat. That all depends on how fit he is, because Ronaldo is dealing with a nagging left knee injury. Goal.com's Sam Lee cited Spanish reports that indicated Ronaldo might be risking his career by playing with the ailing limb.
The team's backup goalkeeper in Beto doesn't believe Ronaldo is having any issue at all—and that Portugal can get the necessary win, per The Associated Press' Aron Heller:
Cristiano is 100 percent fit to play. Every match, if he starts to play, it is because he is fit to play, he's ready to play. He loves football but his body is the most important thing for him ... so if he starts a match he is ready, he is fit, so I don't think that is a problem.
[...] The best version of Portugal can beat United States. We respect the United States of America. It is a very good team. They grew up the last years and so we got to respect them. But we believe in ourselves.
It stands to reason, though, that Ronaldo would try to gut it out if he wasn't 100 percent, given that the World Cup is once every four years and is a matter of immense international pride. The optimal offense for Portugal would have Ronaldo unquestionably pain-free. In any event, the goal differential is the biggest impediment for Portugal's chances at the round of 16.
In light of how confident the United States has to be coming off a thrilling 2-1 win over Ghana, it will be difficult to beat, much less by a considerable margin. All the Americans need to do is avoid a letdown after finally knocking off the side that eliminated them from the previous two World Cups.
But the USA is also lacking firepower on its attack, with Jozy Altidore unable to play due to a strained hamstring, per Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated:
US Soccer: Jozy Altidore has strained left hamstring, not available Sunday, hopeful will be back during WC. Besler OK.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) June 19, 2014
With the uncertainty surrounding Ronaldo's fitness, it's difficult to endorse Portugal as the favorite. This has been a difficult World Cup to predict—look no further than Argentina's thriller against Iran on Saturday. Thus, the United States will keep the momentum going and pull out a win by the same score it did in facing Ghana.
Which match will have the closest outcome?
A demoralizing defeat at the hands of Germany will be too much for Portugal to overcome in time to get a win here. The Americans will have a sense of urgency, since they'd do well just to get a point versus the Germans in the last group match.
Knocking off a reputable football power in Portugal would give coach Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. side a significant boost in legitimacy stateside. The sport isn't as prominent with the myriad other options, but an inspiring run in Brazil is key to enhancing the USA's profile. In that sense, it could be argued that it's somewhat of a must-win scenario for the Americans as well.
On the other hand, the maximum amount of pressure is on Portugal to pull through as the favorite. After inching into the knockout stage in 2010, taking a step back is something it must avoid. Although the group is extremely tough, it possesses enough skill not to be losing its first two World Cup matches.
Prediction: United States 2, Portugal 1