Belgium - Dark horses for the 2014 FIFA World Cup or real contenders?
Nicknamed as the “Red Devils,” the Belgium national squad looks very promising having burgeoning young talents like Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois, Adnan Januzaj etc and remain many people’s top bet to gatecrash the top nation’s World Cup party. It was manager George Leekens that handed several key players their debut and his successor Marc Wilmots that has taken the Belgian national side from strength to strength and World Cup qualification. They now have a squad full to the brim of players who are already stars for their domestic clubs, and who are still years away from hitting their peaks.
World Cup Squad
Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid, on loan from Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Koen Casteels (Hoffenheim), Silvio Proto (Anderlecht).
Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Atletico Madrid), Laurent Ciman (Standard Liege), Nicolas Lombaerts (Zenit St Petersburg), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Daniel Van Buyten (Bayern Munich), Anthony Vanden Borre (Anderlecht), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham).
Midfielders: Nacer Chadli, Mousa Dembele (both Tottenham), Steven Defour (Porto), Kevin De Bruyne (Wolfsburg), Marouane Fellaini, Adnan Januzaj (both Manchester United), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Kevin Mirallas (Everton), Divock Origi (Lille), Axel Witsel (Zenit St Petersburg).
Forwards: Romelu Lukaku (Everton, on loan from Chelsea), Dries Mertens (Napoli).
Tipped as the dark horses in this years tournament Belgium’s first XI certainly looks one of the strongest. As you can see manager Wilmots has included four goalkeepers in his provisional squad, so it is obvious that the 23-man final cut will simply be without either Koen Casteels or Silvio Proto.
The primary candidate for selection which should be Courtois has been sensational for Atletico Madrid in a season where they have already been crowned as the champions of Spain and are a foot away from being the best in Europe. Having Courtois as their goalkeeper Atletico have only conceded 25 goals this season. Yes, he has been that good. The other choice is Simon Mignolet of Liverpool who has been doing pretty well this season and certainly has the talent to step up if given the call. The only problem that could arise is the two shot stoppers who have no experience of playing at the World Cup. Overall the goalkeeping department looks very strong indeed and should provide some extra thrust to the Belgium back line.
Rating: 8 out of 10.
To anchor Belgium defense they boast the captains of Arsenal and Manchester City, Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany. To all the football fans out there Kompany needs no introduction. He is the captain for his club and country, and without a doubt is one of the best defenders in world football. Good at both with the ball and without it, Kompany at 26 years has already rallied his City troops to two domestic titles and looks like the perfect captain for a young Belgium squad. To partner him there would be Thomas Vermaelen who has had a below average season due to injuries but still could form a strong partnership with the captain at the back. Along with Vermaelen there is the vastly experienced Bayern Munich center back Daniel Van Buyten. The full back positions are to be occupied by Atletico Madrid’s Toby Alderweireld at right back and Tottenham Hotspur’s Jan Vertoghen at left with the latter being equally good at going forward and staying back. The only problem with the back line could be how much width and natural attacking threat the full backs will provide. Apart from Vertonghen (if opted to play at center back) Vermaelen and Alderweireld are more at ease playing in the center and thus will be less effective in making those overlapping runs behind the opposition defense. Yet leaving the negatives out the Belgium back line looks formidable, fine as its chocolates.
Rating: 7 out of 10
The engine room looks more promising than the back line for Belgium with enormous amount of talent present in the Red Devils midfield. In Eden Hazard they probably have their biggest star, a player capable of producing moments of magic who should link up well with Romelu Lukaku playing up top. He certainly is the X-Factor in the Belgium ranks, who on his day could walk through any defense. Along with Hazard there are the players with similar hairdo, Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel, who should be starting in the center midfield area. To put pressure on the selection of these two there will be the services of the Moussa Dembele and Steven Defour, who are largely expected to start on the bench. Then there is Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium’s top scorer in the qualifying campaign, who would be given the responsibility of playing behind the striker or on the flanks. On the other wing (right) coach Wilmots has Kevin Mirallas, who has had a decent season at Everton and as quoted by Roberto Martinez, has significantly improved. And finally to complete Wilmots jigsaw there is the young prodigy and uncapped teenager, Adnan Januzaj, who would be raring to go after being one of the bright spots of Manchester United’s poor season.
The only weakness I could see through this richly talented midfield was a player who is a proper distributor of the ball. A player who knows when to hold the play, when to slow it down and how to bring the other team-mates in the game. Maroune Fellaini at the moment certainly doesn’t look anywhere near to be capable of doing that and thus Belgium could be seen struggling against sides who play a high pressing game. But to analyze as a whole, on paper Belgium still have an embarrassment of riches in midfield.
Rating: 8 out of 10.
Christian Benteke’s ruptured achilles tendon leaves Romelu Lukaku, who just turned 21, as the only obvious striker. He had an impressive season at Everton, on loan from Chelsea, and still has scope to develop. Although he destroyed Croatia’s defense in a 2-0 victory in Zagreb that secured Belgium’s ticket to Brazil. Since then a 2-0 friendly loss to Colombia in November and a 2-2 draw with Ivory Coast in March have exposed Belgium’s struggle to turn stylish possession into goals. Overall Belgium’s way of scoring goals or atleast their effort looks very Arsenal-ish where they try to pass the ball into the net or are always trying to score beautifully. This could cause problems when they are playing at the biggest level as there will be games where chances would be limited and the priority would be to make the most of those chances and not showboat. But with the Didier Drogba of the future in their ranks a 6 foot 3 inches, Romelu Lukaku is a force to be reckoned with, and his combination of size, power, speed and technical ability will make him a dominant player in Brazil. Considering him to be one of the favourite to win Golden Boot would be an overstatement but if he is at his best he will certainly be among the goals.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Overall Team Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
Belgium is certainly one side which would be loved by the neutrals at the World Cup finals. Who doesn’t like an underdog beating the shit out of a much bigger, reputed juggernaut, we all love a Rocky Balboa. They could very well achieve a similar feat like Atletico Madrid, who have probably had the best season of the club’s history considering the recent scenario. But given the lack of experience in the squad and absence from the recent international tournaments they look highly unlikely to go all the way in Brazil.
Without undermining them and looking at the larger and more practical picture, this is probably the best squad Belgium have ever sent to a World Cup, and the quality of their players is certainly adequate to see them to the last eight or the last four. If they can handle the pressure of the occasion they could certainly cause some upsets in Brazil.