The second round of 2014 World Cup group-stage play wraps up on Sunday with three very intriguing fixtures.
So far, the tournament has been wildly entertaining. It's as if fans have been transported to a bygone era in which coaches are free of pressure and expectations and willing to take chances rather than play pragmatic, defensive football.
You keep expecting the other shoe to drop and for the World Cup to realize it's the World Cup, where players are paralyzed by fear and coaches are loathe to do anything that could be second-guessed.
Instead, each day has been just as enthralling as the last.
With a lot on the line for many of the teams in action on Sunday, Day 11 should be a continuation of the 2014 World Cup's open nature.
Day 11 Fixtures
|12 p.m. ET; 5 p.m. BST||H||Belgium||Russia||ABC (U.S.); BBC One (UK)|
|3 p.m. ET; 8 p.m. BST||H||South Korea||Algeria||ABC (U.S.); ITV 1 (UK)|
|6 p.m. ET; 11 p.m. BST||G||United States||Portugal||ESPN (U.S.); BBC One (UK)|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||2||0||0||2||-2||0|
Day 11 Preview
Although many American fans will be focusing on the clash with Portugal, the more intriguing fixture of Day 11 may be Belgium vs. Russia.
The Belgians came into this tournament with massive expectations but labored in their first match—a 2-1 win over Algeria. Although Marc Wilmots got his pre-match tactics wrong, give him credit for reacting and bringing on Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens, who both changed the game.
Fellaini in particular was a colossus, channeling his best Everton days:
The outsiders who didn't think Fellaini should have gone to the World Cup sure are quiet today...— The Belgian Waffle (@TheBelgianWffle) June 18, 2014
Belgium were there for the taking, though, and they may run into trouble against Russia. Of course, Igor Akinfeev might make it a little easier for them:
Deja vu for Capello! Robert Green in 2010, now Akinfeev in 2014 has a ball go through his hands. 1-0, #KOR 70'.— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) June 17, 2014
The one thing you can always say about a Fabio Capello-coached side is that it will defend extremely well. Leave aside Akinfeev's howler and the back four of Dmitri Kombarov, Sergei Ignashevich, Vasili Berezutski and Andrey Yeshchenko were splendid against South Korea.
This match will be a great test to see how good this Belgium side really is. If they bounce back from their close win against Algeria with a thrashing of Russia, then the Belgians will look every bit the team many pegged them to be before the World Cup.
On paper, Korea Republic vs. Algeria appears to be the least compelling of the three matches on Sunday, but this is one you shouldn't ignore.
The Fennec Foxes are a little more attack-minded than they were in 2010. Although they remain somewhat pragmatic, coach Vahid Halilhodzic isn't afraid to let the match open up and for his players to take a few chances.
The same goes for the Taeguk Warriors and coach Hong Myung-bo. Their specialty is the counter-attack, but once in motion, they can be a lot of fun to watch. Son Heung-min on the left and Lee Chung-yong have both pace and creativity out wide.
Scoring goals isn't always a problem for Algeria and South Korea, and since this will be the easiest match of the group stage for both teams, they should be looking to grab all three points rather than playing for the draw.
South Korea's double-pivot of Ki Sung-yueng and Han Kook-young could decide the match. They played very well against Russia and will be front and center once again. They offer protection for the back four and help to spark South Korea's impressive counter.
Of course, the match most will be focusing on is the United States vs. Portugal. This fixture became much more interesting after Ghana's draw against Germany.
The math is simple for the U.S. If the Americans beat Portugal, then they're through to the knockout stages, regardless of their result against Germany. Their destiny is firmly in their own hands.
Injuries are already playing a big role in this clash, though.
The United States will be without the services of Jozy Altidore, per SportsCenter:
BREAKING NEWS: USMNT F Jozy Altidore will not play Sunday against Portugal due to strained left hamstring. pic.twitter.com/EDgVh6o4Fl— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 19, 2014
The Seleccao, on the other hand, are missing Pepe through suspension and the combination of Fabio Coentrao and Hugo Almeida through injury, per Glenn Davis of Soccer Matters:
Portugal Sunday will be missing Hugo Almeida, Fabio Coentraeo and of course Pepe against the United States.— Glenn Davis (@GlennDavisSoc) June 17, 2014
Then there's the question marks surrounding the health of Cristiano Ronaldo.
When Ronaldo's at his best, Portugal can be one of the best sides in the world. Without him, or at least with a hobbled Ronaldo, they become a slow, plodding, predictable side. He's the straw that stirs the drink.
The United States have issues of their own in trying to figure out how to replace Altidore. Jurgen Klinsmann will likely opt for either Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski to pair with Clint Dempsey, but neither offers the same kind of hold-up play that Altidore can.
Wondolowski is the closest like-for-like replacement to the Sunderland striker if Klinsmann follows that line of thinking. On the other hand, Johannsson is arguably more dynamic and suitable to a counter-attacking style if the United States bunker in against Portugal.
This fixture will be a nice way to finish off what will be another lively day of World Cup football.