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.

DC United acquires Julian Gressel from Atlanta

Atlanta United trades for Julian Gressel
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How much is Major League Soccer’s best assist man worth?

About $750,000.

DC United paid Atlanta United that fee in allocation money for the rights to Julian Gressel, who had been at a contract impasse with the club who drafted him in 2017.

That fee could hit $1.1 million in incentives, and even so could be a bargain.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Gressel was due to make around $133,000 this season and wanted an improved deal from Atlanta given his massive production since becoming the eighth overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft.

That salary is less than hundreds of players, most of them nowhere near Gressel’s impact. Nineteen Atlanta United players made more than him last season, so it’s understandable that the 26-year-old wanted to get paid.

We don’t know what he was asking, or why Atlanta wouldn’t get there. From MLSSoccer.com:

“If we really wanted to, we could have had him play on $130,000 this season, extend him a bona fide offer at the end of the season and (we’d still own his MLS rights),” said Atlanta United vice president Carlos Bocanegra. “We’re also trying to do the right thing for a guy who has given so much to the club and is really just a good kid all around.”

It’s a weird one, given what the club’s been paying others.

Gressel arrived at Providence College from Eintracht Bamberg and immediately started delivering for the Big East side. He finished his four years with 30 goals and 26 assists and All-American status.

There was some adapting to MLS, but he’s gotten better with every season. He scored 10 goals with 13 assists in all competitions last season.

Spurs chairman reportedly met with Real Madrid about Gareth Bale

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As a neutral, the idea of Gareth Bale rejoining Tottenham Hotspur would be a delight to our Premier League matchday viewing.

Obviously this applies to Spurs fans to the nth degree, especially after a dull 0-0 with Watford at the weekend.

In the short-term, Bale would be a terrific stopgap as Spurs struggle to find themselves without Harry Kane in both the PL and Champions League.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

In the long-term, Bale and Heung-Min Son on the wings of Harry Kane would be enough to make any PL power trio blush (unless Liverpool really does add Timo Werner).

A report out of Spain says Real Madrid president Florentino Perez met with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy about several things including the availability of Bale.

The Welsh star has been long admired by Jose Mourinho, and of course knows Spurs well having become a superstar after arriving from Southampton.

Bale is 30 and his wages would easily top Spurs’ pay list. His 21 goals and nine assists in the 2012/13 Premier League season join his 19 and 11 in 2015 La Liga as his top league seasons.

Spurs host Norwich City on Wednesday (Watch live at 2:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

Guardiola praises Laporte, “the best left central defender in the world”

Pep Guardiola praises Aymeric Laporte
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Manchester City kept its first clean sheet of 2020 on Tuesday, posting a 1-0 win over Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.

It took the two-time reigning Premier League champions six tries to get there, the previous zero coming against this same Blades side at the Etihad Stadium.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

City manager Pep Guardiola was quick to give credit to a returning hero, as center back Aymeric Laporte returned to the fold for the first time since Aug. 31.

The club was 3W-1D at that point. They went 12W-2D-5L without him.

Here’s Guardiola, from the Manchester Evening News:

“It’s incredible,” Guardola said. “We have missed him a lot, he’s the best left central defender in the world. Imagine the best teams in the world lose their best central defender. We miss him a lot because he’s a specialist left foot where our buildup. He is fast, strong in the air.”

“He has something that we don’t have in the squad. His left foot and many actions to build up to make it quicker and better – we don’t have it, not because the other ones are not good but he has the only left foot as a central defender and for the way we want to play that is so important. His character and mentality and winning, he has all the attributes. For me, when he is fit he is the best left central defender in the world.”

If you read that as a little bit of an explanation for City being 13 points off Liverpool, you’ve similar eyes to us.

Pep is asking how Liverpool would look without Virgil Van Dijk, how Real Madrid appears when Sergio Ramos is out.

It’s not the be-all, end-all, but as I wrote when Laporte went down, this is the key piece to their defending efforts as well as where they begin possession.

We’re also grateful that Guardiola didn’t drop some sort of, “He’s like a January transfer addition,” statement (at least as far as we’ve read.

Chelsea admit they miss USMNT’s Pulisic

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LONDON — Since USMNT star Christian Pulisic was injured in training in the first week of January, Chelsea have lost against Newcastle, drawn with Arsenal and blown away Burnley.

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In the two games where they’ve dropped points they’ve missed Pulisic’s genius in the final third with both Willian and Callum Hudson-Odoi easily shackled by Arsenal in their London derby. Chelsea admitted as much when speaking after the 2-2 draw against Arsenal on Tuesday, an Arsenal side who played with 10 men for over 60 minutes of the game.

Asked by Pro Soccer Talk about Pulisic’s adductor injury and if they missed him during the draw against Arsenal, downbeat Chelsea boss Frank Lampard noted that Pulisic, 21, was “playing really well” before his injury.

“Yeah, a game like today could have been a good where he would have been helpful for us because he was playing well for a patch. But other people have to stand up in those situations,” Lampard said.

When will Pulisic be back?

Lampard confirmed he is making good progress but will not be fit until after the mid-season player break in February, which means he will miss their FA Cup trip to Hull City this Saturday and their clash at Leicester City on Feb. 1. He may not be back until Feb. 17 when they host Manchester United in the Premier League, which means in total he will have been out for a period of six weeks.

“In terms of when he’s back, it is not going to be a week, it is probably be the other end of the early February break but he is getting better and he isn’t far away,” Lampard said.

Speaking to Pro Soccer Talk pitch-side at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta, who scored their late second goal which looked like being the winner, lavished praise on Pulisic when asked about his absence over the last week.

“Christian is a magnificent player. Since he joined us in the summer he has shown us his potential and we know that he can make the difference at any time. Whenever a player is injured it is not good for a team because we lose potential and I hope to have him back soon,” Azpilicueta said.

Chelsea’s skipper is expecting big things from Pulisic when he does return to fitness, as the fourth-place Blues now have just a six-point cushion to those outside of the top four and have played a game more.

It seems like everyone at Chelsea hopes the USMNT star can rejuvenate their attack in the final months of the season.

“After coming to Europe as a young boy to Germany, he came to Chelsea and it is one step forward, playing for Chelsea every game, fighting to win and fighting for trophies,” Azpilicueta said. “In my role I’ve tried to help in settle into the city and the club. He has a brilliant attitude. Always trying to improve. I am sure he will become bigger and bigger.”