KEIR RADNEDGE in SALVADOR – 2nd rd: Belgium 2, United States 1 after extra time
—- Romelu Lukaku came off the substitutes bench at the start of extra time to turn around his sulky World Cup and drive Belgium into the quarter-finals.
Yet, although the Belgians progressed all the honours from the game were due to the United States for an Alamo-style resistance and then a courageous attacking effort right to the death when they were two goals adrift with the extra-time clock ticking down.
First Lukaku, on for Divock Origi, created a goal for Kevin De Bruyne then he scored himself. But, as Belgium took a breath of relief, so the US hit back. A substitute of their own, Bayern Munch teenager Julian Green struck a magnificent volleyed goal with his first touch.
Green, at 19 years 25 days, was the youngest-ever player to appear for the US in the World Cup. His first goal for the seniors in only his fourth international set up a nail-biting finish as theatrical as anything offered in these most dramatic of finals.
Belgium had set the pattern for the last of the second round ties by investing more attacking effort into the opening exchanges than into all of their three understated group games.
One positive difference was the inclusion of the eager Origi from the start at centre-forward in place of Lukaku.
The Americans struggled to catch the pace of the game but were unfortunate when a hamstring injury deprived of them of Fabian Johnson, their likeliest route of escape down the right.
Belgium forged relentlessly forward, the Americans resisted. Mertens and Hazard wriggled desperately to lose their markers and Belgium resorted, more and more, to left-back Jan Vertonghen as a surprise creative outlet.
No change after the break. Belgium could have scored immediately. Mertens had a header tipped over the bar by Howard and a Vertonghen cross just eluded both De Bruyne and Origi who then saw a header of his own clip the top of the goal.
Hazard and Origi, both with nimble feet, set up yet another option but the ball skipped off Mertens for a goal kick. He gave way to Kevin Mirallas who maintained the harassment, drawing in so many US defenders that Origi had time and space with the ball at his feet. Howard spread himself to make yet another of his plethora of outstanding saves.
Klinsmann shook up shape and balance by bringing on Chris Wondolowski up front, allowing Clint Dempsey to drop back and find space. He used it too, bursting out of midfield and bringing a fine diving save from the faultless Thibaut Courtois.
But that was a rare US burst. Belgium returned to the attack. Origi played Mirallas free. His shot was goalbound until Howard flung out a leg and the toe of his boot deflected the ball wide.
In the last minute Wondolowski screwed a shot wide from clsoe range on the break. The linesman signalled offside but replays showed the flag was wrong. An escape for both Belgium and the assistant.
And so to extra time . . . and more drama of dramas in this Cup of Cups.