The numbers at the end of it all were incredible -- 39 shots, 26 on target, 15 saves. After a point, though, Tim Howard must have seemed like Fort Knox to the Belgians, who attacked in speedy waves for the best part of 90 minutes. They hit the crossbar once (an Divock Origi header) from open play and went past the post a couple of times, but anything and everything that went close to the American goalkeeper was collected, punched or palmed out of play.
It was the most stunning display of goalkeeping. The 15 saves are a record for a World Cup game (the records stretch back to 1966 -- that's when they first started recording the numbers). He made himself large when he needed to; he was nimble and brave at other times. This was Tim Howard responding to all those chants of 'USA USA"- this was him doing it for his country.
And truth be told, he deserved a medal.
The Belgians had their best game of the tournament -- the US defenders made an incredible 70 clearances tonight, more than any side has managed in a single World Cup 2014 game. But for a majority of the game, the US defenders were unable to deal with the pace of the Belgian team that for the first time in the tournament found its true rhythm.
A side filled with some of the most talented players in Europe was supposed to cruise into the second round but instead, they struggled to get find the right balance and often left their goals late. Too late in some cases.
But today, against a well organised USA team -- they played like favourites are supposed to. They were inventive and direct and most importantly, they were always looking to go forward.
Only, they kept running into Howard. Goalkeepers are usually called upon to make a few vital saves in every game but for Howard, it was one long procession of saves that started as early as the first minute and went on till the last. His concentration could not drop and it did not.
Marc Wilmots, the Belgium coach, said the game was not easy on him. “It was bad for my heart,” he said. “But I am happy now, only concentrating on Argentina in the next round.
“People said we were not a good footballing team, but we created a chance after two minutes and must have had about 20 more. Tim Howard had a fantastic match. I think we saw a lot of football from Belgium tonight, a lot of movement."
At the end of the day, the Red Devils were too determined and got the goals they so desperately sought. Kevin De Bruyne broke the Howard wall a few minutes into extra time and then Romelu Lukaku added a second later. Julian Green got one back with just 12 minutes to go but the Belgians somehow pulled it off.
Football is so often about tactics, formations, the strikers, the midfielders, the defenders or even the coaches. But Howard showed that the game more than anything else is about heart. His performance was the stuff of legend and it will not be forgotten by anyone who watched it. USA almost showed that they are scaling up to a level where they will soon be challenging the European and South American super powers.
"I think... it's heartbreaking. I don't think we could have given anymore. We got beat by a very good team," said a tearful Howard after the game. "It's heartache. It hurts. Hats off to Belgium, but we gave it our all. Sometimes you give your best and it doesn't come off. Dream falls short but this is an incredible group and I will never forget this match."
You were under siege for most of the game... asked the interviewer in the post-game interview.
Howard didn't bat an eyelid before saying: "But that's what I signed up for..."
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Updated Date: Jul 02, 2014 19:14:11 IST