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2014 World Cup Team Preview: Belgium

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Getting to know…Belgium
The mention of Belgium often doesn’t start the heart thumping and the fingers trembling. Usually, you’re more likely to start thinking about chocolate. Fries. Waffles. Mussels.

Ok, now I’m hungry.

But we’re talking about the World Cup here, and yes, teams should fear Belgium. Not based on their history: the furthest they’ve made it in a World Cup was fourth, back in 1986. In 2002, they were knocked out in the Round of 16, and celebrated by failing to qualify for the next two World Cups and three European Championships.

Don’t underestimate Belgium, though. The majority of their players may not have experience in the biggest games on the brightest stages, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have the ability to scare their opponents. The midfield is packed with talent: Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, and Kevin Mirallas are just a few of the names that could start. Thibaut Courtois is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. And forward Romelu Lukaku may be just 21 years old, but he’s already had plenty of experience terrorizing defenses.

Record in qualifying
Undefeated in UEFA Group G. And that group wasn’t exactly a cakewalk, either. Both Croatia, who wound up finishing second, and Serbia, who finished third, felt they had a good shot at the World Cup finals. Wales and Scotland both put up more of a fight than many had expected.

Belgium clinched qualification in their penultimate game, beating Croatia 2-1 to send them into a playoff with Iceland. The victory allowed the Belgians to cruise a bit in their final match, drawing 1-1 with Wales.

A look at Group H
Belgium shouldn’t have much of a problem getting out of their group. Their recent performances meant they were seeded, and they’ve been drawn with Russia, South Korea and Algeria. South Korea could cause a few problems for Belgium’s attack, as they’re a strong unit who plays together very well. Russia, under Fabio Capello, will be able to adapt their strategy depending on their opponents, but they’re unlikely to move past the group stages. Algeria are the weak link in the group – a solid enough side, but one that hasn’t run up against much top-class competition.

Game schedule

Thursday, June 17 at 12 noon ET: Belgium vs. Algeria (Estádio Mineirão, Belo Horizonte)

Sunday, June 220 at 12 noon ET: Belgium vs. Russia (Estádio do Maracaña, Rio de Janeiro)

Thursday, June 26 at 4 p.m. ET: South Korea vs. Belgium (Arena Corinthians, São Paulol)

Star player
Eden Hazard. Sure, he got into a little spat with manager José Mourinho that left to Hazard being left on the bench for some (must-win) Chelsea games, but who hasn’t fought with Mou at one time or another? Hazard, the PFA Young Player of the Year, is the most talented of an immensely talented crop of young Belgian players. He’ll zip through the midfield, trickster his way around the defenders or simply execute a perfect pass that will have your jaw dropping.

Manager
Marc Wilmots, originally an assistant manager for the national team, took charge of Belgium in May 2012. He obviously guided this talented bunch of players through what could well have been a difficult qualifying process, but his biggest challenge lies ahead: how to make the right selections for the major games he’s facing. Without Christian Benteke, who ruptured his Achilles and is unavailable for the World Cup, Lukaku is a lock up top. But who plays behind? No matter which three attackers Wilmots chooses for his 4-2-3-1, some highly gifted players will remain on the bench – like Dries Mertens, who scored 11 goals for Napoli this season. If Belgium fail to go as far as many are predicting, Wilmots could find himself on the unemployment line.

Secret weapon
Is it fair to say Romelu Lukaku? After all, it’s hard to keep a 6’3″ striker seemingly made of pure muscle a secret. Especially since he made his first appearance in the Premier League nearly four years ago. The 21-year-old scored 16 goals on loan at Everton this last season, and has scored six in 28 appearances for Belgium.

Now, the pressure’s on for the young forward. While Belgium can certainly score from midfield, he’s still going to be the one looked to to knock in the goals. If he’s able to keep cool in Brazil, he’ll take his country far.

Prediction
Fourth place, losing to France in the match the runners-up are forced to play to determine who’s really the third best in the world. Not too shabby for a team that’s missed out on qualifying for five consecutive major international tournaments.

Video: City clinical on set piece to double lead

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Manchester City has lived up to the billing early on in the Pep Guardiola era, and the first half of Sunday’s match against West Ham has been everything the Spaniard could hope for.

After taking an early lead through Raheem Sterling after seven minutes, Fernandinho doubled the City lead in the 18th minute after a stellar set piece situation.

Kevin De Bruyne‘s stepped up for a free kick before the Belgian curled his effort directly into the path of Fernandinho, who headed home the hosts for the 2-0 lead.

Even though West Ham is understandably undermanned with Dimitri Payet, Andy Carroll and others, City is putting on a show right now at the Etihad.

West Brom 0-0 Middlesbrough: Guzan holds Baggies scoreless

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - AUGUST 28: Cristhian Stuani of Middlesbrough takes on Brendan Galloway and Claudio Yacob (R) of West Bromwich Albion  during the Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Middlesbrough at The Hawthorns on August 28, 2016 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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It wasn’t the most attractive perfromance all around but Middlesbrough remained perfect on Sunday after finishing level in their 0-0 draw with West Bromwich Albion from The Hawthorns.

Brad Guzan earned his second start in net on Sunday since joining Middlesbrough, and the U.S. Men’s National Team keeper was active early on, making two key saves in the first half to keep the match scoreless.

Despite Boro’s success in possession, the team lacked a final touch early on and failed to register a shot on target in the opening 45 minutes. West Brom was successful in limiting Alvaro Negredo’s touches early on, which prevented the road side from getting any sort of offensive rhythm.

West Brom continued to press for the opener in the second stanza, however, the home side’s remained limited and largely unthreatening. Craig Dawson had an opportunity to open the scoring in the 63rd minute with a header from close range, but the attempt missed wide of net after Matt Phillips played in the service.

Watch Live: Manchester City vs. West Ham (Lineups, Live Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 23:  Sergio Aguero of Manchester City battles with Aaron Cresswell of West Ham United during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Manchester City at the Boleyn Ground on January 23, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Pep Guardiola remains perfect in his early run in the Premier League and looks to continue that trend on Sunday as Manchester City hosts a difficult West Ham United side at 11 a.m. E.T. from the Etihad Stadium on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

Joe Hart has been the talking point for weeks now at City, but with the new signing of Claudio Bravo finalized earlier this week the attention turns to whether or not the Englishman will be offloaded before the transfer window closes next week.

WATCH LIVE: Manchester City vs. Sunderland live online

West Ham needed a late winner a week ago to edge Bournemouth at home, however, Slaven Bilic‘s side has battled hard in both of their fixtures to start the season.

The Hammers will be extremely undermanned on Sunday as Dimitri Payet headlines the group of players that haven’t travelled with the team to Manchester. Striker Andy Carroll won’t be at the Etihad either, leaving West Ham lacking with depth up front.

Enner Valencia and Cheikhou Kouyate will play key roles for the Hammers as they look to fill the voids left by Payet and Carroll.

Meanwhile, City will keep Will Caballero in net while Bravo finishes his transition into the squad. Nolito also gets the start alongside Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero up front, which will give West Ham fits defensively.

LINEUPS

Manchester City – Caballero, Zabaleta, Otamendi, Stones, Clichy, Fernandinho, De Bruyne, Silva, Sterling, Nolito, Aguero.
Bench – Hart, Fernando, Nasri, Kolarov, Delph, Iheanacho, Navas.

West Ham – Adrián, Ogbonna, Reid, Masuaku, Collins, Noble, Kouyate, Antonio, Tore, Enner Valencia, Fletcher.
Bench – Randolph, Byrum, Burke, Oxford, Obiang, Lanzini, Calleri.

Serie A roundup: Khedira earns Juventus three points as Napoli defeats AC Milan

ROME, ITALY - AUGUST 27:  Sami Khedira #6 with his teammates of Juventus FC celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and Juventus FC at Stadio Olimpico on August 27, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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Sami Khedira hasn’t found the field much since moving to Juventus two summers ago, but when he does, he has a striker’s eye.

The German bagged his eighth goal for Juventus in just his 28th appearance as the Italian giants went on the road and defeated Lazio 1-0.

A poor clear attempt by Lucas Biglia saw Paulo Dybala’s lofted ball over the top fall to Khedira, and he skittered the ball across the face of goal into the far corner. The win is the second of the year for Juventus after they took down Fiorentina in their opening match.

There was a goal-fest at Stadio San Paolo as Napoli defeated AC Milan 4-2 braces from Arkadiusz Milik and Jose Callejon. Milik’s came in the first-half, with the opener in 18th minute, a lucky bounce as Dries Mertens’ shot clattered off the post and fell in Milik’s lap. He doubled Napoli’s lead in the 33rd minute with a beautiful header into the far corner, out-jumping Juraj Kucka.

The second half saw a flurry of action. A pair of goals four minutes apart saw Milan tie things up as M’baye Niang and Suso brought them level. Then, the yellow cards came flying. As a result, Kucka and Niang were both sent off for second cautions. Jose Callejon took advantage, bagging his first in the 74th and doubling his tally in stoppage time in a ridiculous bit of play that saw Alessio Romagnoli try to swat Mertens’ cross away from the goal line…yes, as in with his hands.

It’s a wonder Romagnoli wasn’t sent off for his actions. Napoli