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.

Report: Arsenal interested in Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel

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According to a report by The Sun, Arsenal is monitoring the progress of Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

The rumor does make sense. With Petr Cech at 34 years old and having a poor season in front of net and backup David Ospina failing to challenge him for the starting job, the Gunners are looking elsewhere to bring in a potential future starter.

Schmeichel has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League the past two seasons. Last season he led the Foxes to the Premier League title, organizing a stunningly good defensive line of patchwork players. This season, the defense has largely regressed and let Schmeichel down, but he has still performed well and has the metrics to remain one of the league’s top shot-stoppers.

The Danish keeper is 30 years old himself, but that puts him in his prime for a goalkeeper. He has been with Leicester City since 2011, and he will tick 250 appearances for the club with his next match. Schmeichel was rumored to be a member of the secret player delegation that worked hard to see Claudio Ranieri pushed out of the club, a sentiment which he and the other players have strongly denied.

Still, with an improbable Premier League title in hand and an appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals now on the cards, there probably isn’t much else for him at Leicester City. It’s possible Schmeichel could look to bank on his past performances and secure a move to a bigger club this summer.

Should Arsene Wenger stay with Arsenal past this season, a possibility that looks more and more likely, he could look to move on from Cech despite signing the former Chelsea goalkeeper just two summers ago.

Diego Costa injured, but will stay with Spain squad for friendly

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Chelsea striker Diego Costa pulled up in Spain training on Sunday, and with the Blues in first in the Premier League and Costa in great form, there were obvious concerns.

With Costa struggling with leg and ankle injuries, the RFEF informed Chelsea that there was an issue, and Costa was pulled from training and sent for tests. X-Rays at the local hospital in Madrid were negative, and he’s rejoined the squad.

According to the RFEF, doctors will continue to monitor the 28-year-old and he will continue with the national team for the rest of the international break. With a World Cup qualification win over Israel already in the books and just a friendly against France to go on Tuesday, it’s odd that Spain would risk Costa moving forward, but they will continue to keep him around.

Costa has scored 18 goals this season to lead the Blues, and he scored in the win over Israel. Spain takes on France in Saint-Denis on Tuesday, with both teams leading their World Cup qualification groups. Spain has a goal-differential lead on Italy with both teams miles above the rest of the Group G, and France is ahead of Sweden by three points in Group A, with the Netherlands back in fourth.

Foul or flop? Player “headbutts” referee, is sent off

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Well, there must be something in the water down in Brasilia, because things got a little weird this evening.

Flamengo drew with Vasco da Gama 2-2, but that was just the start.

In the 54th minute, with Vasco da Gama leading 1-0 at Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha, 36-year-old Luis Fabiano was sent off for “headbutting” the referee. Headbutting is in quotes because looking at the video, it certainly appears there was little to no contact, and the referee flops.

Yes, the referee flopped. Take a look:

To be fair, Fabiano was already on a yellow, so getting in the referee’s face even without the headbutt/pelvic thrust would likely still have seen him sent to an early shower.

So the former Porto and Sevilla man was sent off, and Vasco da Gama was down to 10 men. Immediately after the red card, Flamengo took advantage, powering in a pair of goals via Willian Arao and Orlando Berrio to take the lead 2-1. But Vasco wouldn’t quit, and they earned a penalty five minutes into stoppage time, which Nene buried for the 2-2 draw.

To top things off, a player named Yago Pikachu scored the opener for Vasco da Gama, which was followed by a delay in the game seven minutes later after a power surge in the stadium. Go figure.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.