Three key battles that could decide US vs. Belgium showdown

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With the USA’s crunch round of 16 clash fast approaching, here are three battles to keep an eye on during Tuesday’s match in Salvador.

You’ll likely be familiar with Belgium’s squad, as a whole host of their players ply their trade in the Premier League and the U.S. have played Belgium twice in friendlies over the past three years.

[ RELATED: How will USA line up vs. Belgium? ]

[ RELATED: Altidore fit for U.S. ]

Let’s break it down and look at three duels that could be crucial in sending either nation into the last eight.

Tim Howard vs. Romelu Lukaku

Teammates at Everton over the past season, Howard has already warned his U.S. teammates of Lukaku’s power. The Chelsea forward has been superb in loan spells at West Brom and Everton in the past two seasons, scoring 32 goals in 66 Premier League games. His pace in behind means the U.S. will be wary about keeping a high line, but his hold up play is also second to none. U.S. central defenders Omar Gonzalez, Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler will have to keep a close eye on Lukaku, but it’s likely that Howard will have to come up with another stellar display to keep the Belgian giant at bay. Howard knows Lukaku’s tendencies after training with him day in, day out and should have an ace up his sleeve in that regard. Belgium’s players have spoken of their respect for Howard, and if the U.S. is going to advance they will need their ‘keeper to get the better of the man he knows so well from his club team.

source: AP
Kompany’s fitness is in question, as skipper will have to lock down Dempsey.

Clint Dempsey vs. Vincent Kompany

Coming into this match there are question marks surrounding Kompany’s fitness which is incredibly good news for the USA. Man City’s captain has been in fine form so far this tournament as Belgium have conceded just one goal in three games. He did have injury problems throughout the 2013-14 campaign, but Kompany captained Man City to the PL title and always seem to pop up with important goals and play well when it mattered. He’s a man mountain. It is likely to be a clash of the skippers up top, as Dempsey will lead the U.S. attack in Jozy Altidore’s continued absence through injury. During this World Cup Dempsey has scored twice, looked sharp and is willing to put his body on the line for the cause. He will need to be psychical against Kompany and co. if he can be the outlet the U.S. will badly need to ease the Belgian pressure. It will be a thankless task for Dempsey up top on his own but if he gets a sniff at goal, you’d fancy him to take it. Dempsey is in no mood to mess around at this World Cup. This will be a battle between two supreme warriors.

Eden Hazard vs. Fabian Johnson

From warriors to speedsters, Hazard holds the key to Belgium’s success. Voted the PFA Young Player of the Year in the Premier League after his dazzling displays for Chelsea, Hazard hasn’t got going for Belgium in Brazil. Floating around both flanks, he’s looked sluggish and his usual trickery has evaded him. Many are calling for the Belgian star to have a breakout game vs. the U.S. to finally announce himself on the world stage. The man who’ll likely be charged with stopping him is Fabian Johnson. One of the USA’s star performers so far, the German-American has shone at right back after previously being deployed in more attacking roles by Klinsmann. Johnson must be disciplined against Hazard and resist the urge to bomb on and attack at every opportunity. If he gives Hazard a yard of space to wriggle free in and around the box, it could be curtains for the USA’s hopes of advancing to the quarterfinals.

Pep Guardiola praises Man City’s “animals”

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Pep Guardiola‘s Manchester City have set a new English top-flight record with 15 consecutive wins and, of course, comparisons are already being made as to just how good this City side are.

Runaway leaders of the Premier League with an 11-point lead heading into the busy festive period, City are being compared to the great teams in PL history.

Their winning run means they’ve accomplished something none of the other great PL teams have, and it seems like there is no stopping City.

Speaking to the media after the 4-0 win at Swansea on Wednesday which clinched the record, Guardiola praised his players for breaking the record but also their ability to not only excel when they have the ball but to hunt in packs to win it back.

“In history there have been some amazing teams – Liverpool, [Manchester] United with Sir Alex Ferguson, Chelsea with Jose Mourinho. A lot of good, good teams and we are the first ones to win 15 games in a row,” Mourinho said. “Of course that will not make sense if we do not win the title, if we don’t win the title it will just be a record. This record will be broken but it will not be easy. When (my players) don’t have the ball they go to win it like animals. At this level it’s so competitive. That means we are strong in the head.”

Guardiola’s team have made the best start in Premier League history to a season with 49 points from their opening 17 games and 16 wins from those matches.

They’ve scored 52 goals and the duo of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne are controlling the tempo of each and every game they play in, but not much has been said about the tenacity in City’s play to win the ball back.

That quality has always been a hallmark of Guardiola’s teams at Barcelona and Bayern Munich with the fabled “six second rule” mentioned time and time again as he set his players a target of six seconds to win back possession of the ball.

City did that time and time again against Swansea on Wednesday with Silva regaining possession on multiple occasions in midfield and releasing the likes of Sterling and Sergio Aguero to attack.

There is a lot more behind this ruthless City side than just breaking winning and scoring records. Their extreme hunger for success and doing the dirty work was duly noted by Guardiola.

USSF says nominations submitted for 8 president candidates

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CHICAGO (AP) The U.S. Soccer Federation says it received the required three letters of nomination for eight candidates in its presidential election, one fewer than the total of people who announced their intention to run.

The USSF is conducting background checks on the candidates whose nominations were received by Tuesday night’s deadline. The governing body said the check is to ascertain that a candidate has “no conviction or no contest plea to a felony or crime of moral turpitude” and it will announce the candidate slate after completing the process.

[ MORE: Atlanta acquires Nagbe ]

Sunil Gulati, the USSF president since 2006, decided after the Americans failed to qualify for the World Cup that he will not seek a fourth four-year term.

The nine people who announced they are running include former men’s national team players Paul Caligiuri, Eric Wynalda and Kyle Martino; U.S. women’s goalkeeper Hope Solo; Soccer United Marketing president Kathy Carter; USSF vice president Carlos Cordeiro; Boston lawyer Steve Gans; New York lawyer Michael Winograd; and Paul LaPointe, Northeast Conference manager of the United Premier Soccer League.

The election will be held in February.

Madrid rallies to beat Al Jazira, reach Club World Cup final (video)

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Gareth Bale scored an 81st-minute winner as Real Madrid came from behind to beat Emirates club Al Jazira 2-1 on Wednesday and reach the Club World Cup final.

Madrid will try to win its third world title in four seasons when its faces South American champion Gremio on Saturday.

[ MORE: Premier League Weds. roundup ]

The match had two goals disallowed by video review, one for each team.

Madrid struggled early and allowed the local league winners to open the scoring with a goal by Brazilian forward Romarinho just before halftime.

But Cristiano Ronaldo equalized early in the second half and Bale netted the winner less than a minute after entering the match as a substitute for Karim Benzema.

Paul Clement admits helplessness at facing Man City

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Swansea City manager Paul Clement may have the enduring quote of the season so far when it comes to facing the behemoth that is Manchester City.

[ RECAP – City hammer Swansea ]

The suffering Swans have had their share of poor performances this season — Clement later said January transfer spending “is a must” if the club wants to stay up — but he’s throwing his hands up in the air when it comes to Wednesday’s loss at the Liberty Stadium.

The man sounds exasperated, and sorry for his team. From the BBC:

“At times it was horrible to be on the sideline watching that, seeing my side trying but suffering for long periods. They’re not the games that will decide our season but it was hard to watch at times because they were so dominant. For me, one of the best sides I’ve ever come across. So many good athletes, so many intelligent footballers and it’s really hard to pin them down. We actually had some attempts on their goal so I’m disappointed we didn’t get on the score sheet but they were a far superior side to us. We’ve got to put it aside that game. We’ve got Everton away (next) and we’ve got to try and pick something up there.”

All that’s left is for Clement to pick up a clarinet, awkwardly blow into it, then point at Pep Guardiola and say, “He’s good.”

Free message board points to the first one to name the reference.