Every sporting tournament has the proverbial 'dark horse' among its participants - a non-favourite for the tournament title, but a dangerous one nonetheless. An opponent such as the one just described generally has a few unknown quantities, should it be a team sport, and a sprinkle of proven talents thrown into the mix.
Belgium, if one were to give them the aforementioned sobriquet, are no dark horse for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. A quick glance at the squad shows two high-quality footballers for every position: players with the experience of having played at the highest possible level of expectations and having achieved what most can only dream of.
However, Belgium's is a special case, with a tremendously talented group of footballers born within a decade of each other in a display of coincidence that only fate itself could have designed. A country with a smaller population than the one that resides in London or Paris, it has greatly benefited from the performance of its players in domestic leagues other than its own. But replicating sparkling domestic displays on the international stage is something several teams from the past have struggled with. Dark horses or not, Belgium will certainly be competing beyond the first couple of weeks of the World Cup if their qualification campaign is anything to go by.
Road to the World Cup
Marc Wilmots’ men qualified for the quadrannial event as winners of their group, finishing a whopping nine points above second-placed Croatia. Of course, it helped that they went unbeaten for the entire ten-match qualification process, dropping points only against Wales and Croatia, with both the drawn games occurring in Brussels.
Although the Belgians were rather frugal in front of goal, scoring just 18 goals in 10 games, there weren’t any worries as they conceded just four themselves, keeping six cleansheets. They also managed to win seven successive games on trot, setting a new national record.
Midfielder Kevin De Bruyne led the scoring, contributing four goals to the team’s cause.
All in all, qualification was a breeze, and has raised expectations.
Wilmots announced a provisional 24-man squad as early as May 13, with the extra man being Anderlecht goalkeeper Silvio Proto. Proto was included after Hoffenheim shotstopper Koen Casteels broke his shin against Hertha Berlin in early April. One of the two, Casteels or Proto, were to be dropped depending on the former’s recovery from surgery.
As luck would have it, Proto broke his arm in the final league game of the season, forcing Wilmots to call up Belgian club Zulte Waregem’s Sammy Bossut.
Wilmots suffered another setback the same week, with sriker Christian Benteke ruled out for at least six-months after rupturing his Achilles tendon in training. However, Wilmots is lucky to have Romelu Lukaku, and going on current form, the Chelsea striker would have probably started ahead of Benteke had the latter been fit and available.
A clear deficiency in Belgium’s squad is the lack of full-backs of the same level as the rest of the players. While the centre of defence is as solid as they come, Laurent Ciman, Anthony Vanden Borre and Nicolas Lombaerts do not have the same aura around them as Vincent Kompany or Jan Vertonghen.
The mid-field is clearly Belgium’s area of strength, with Chelsea’s player of the season, Eden Hazard, being the standout player. Goals from the centre of the park will also come from Wolfsburg attacker Kevin De Bruyne, while Nacer Chadli will not have too much of a problem in forgetting a rather dreary season with Tottenham. Solidity will be provided by Steven Defour, Maouane Fellaini an Axel Witsel, with Adnan Januzaj being the surprise package.
The striking options are a bit thin on the back of Benteke’s injury, with Lukaku and Dries Martens being the only forwards, although Kevin Mirallas could depute should the need arise.
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)
Unsurprisingly, the stand-by list too is rather strong. Roma’s Radja Nainggolan and Thorgan Hazard, younger brother of Eden, have had fine seasons, with the latter being the player of the year while on loan at Zulte Waregem. Another player unlucky to miss out is Anderlecht striker Michy Batshuayi.
Stand-by: Sebastien Pocognoli (Hannover), Radja Nainggolan (Roma), Thorgan Hazard (Zulte Waregem, on loan from Chelsea), Guillaume Gillet (Anderlecht), Michy Batshuayi, Jelle Van Damme (both Standard Liege).
Belgium’s top-scorer in World Cups is also their coach. Wilmots, who scored five as a mid-fielder in 1998 and 2002, has 28 overall in 78 games for the national team. Wilmots first took charge of the national side in May 2012 after having served as assistant manager under Dick Advocaat and Georges Leekens. Nicknamed as “War Pig” while a player at Schalke, Wilmots is not likely to succumb to the pressures of the World Cup, having scored during the game and converted the decisive penalty in the shoot-out when Schalke beat Roy Hodgson’s Inter Milan in the 1997 Uefa Cup final.
Wilmots is an experienced hand when it comes to politics too, although an unsuccessful one. It remains to be seen if his time as a senator could help him the resolve issues related to in-fighting and indiscipline that plagued Belgium’s qualification phase for the 2010 World Cup.
Formation and Tactics
For a manager with such attacking talent at his disposal, Wilmots’ fancy for the 4-2-3-1 formation is rather strange. However, Wilmots is not naive.
“I want us to assert ourselves, to have no fear and to not feel smaller than our opponents. I want good football, with lots of movement and chances. But, at the same time, I don’t want us to be naive. All the work I do is about finding that balance,” Wilmots said in an interview to FIFA.com in Octover 2012.
Playing a 4-2-3-1 also allows Wilmots a certain degree of flexibility. The two wider attacking midfielders can easily flank the striker, with the central attacking mid-fielder falling in line with his defensive counterparts to form a 4-3-3 when the game has to be chased. A more balanced 4-1-4-1, or a 4-5-1, too is possible, highlighting the importance of having versatile mid-fielders, which Wilmots has in abundance. Clearly, its the mid-field where the battle has to be won for Belgium.
A clear weakness for the Belgians could be their full-backs, who may not be naturally inclined to move forward. As a result, width could be missing should players such as Hazard and Mirallas move in-field with the ball, and the full-backs don’t bomb on. Although Lukaku has shown the willingness to move to the right in his time at Everton, Belgium could be too narrow to be able to break down well-drilled teams such as Fabio Capello’s Russia.
Best Starting XI
It would not be too far off the mark to say that choosing Belgium's best starting eleven is akin to picking the best eleven from a particular league at the end of the season. The Belgian squad is full of stars of frightening ability, and picking one player over another for someone other than Wilmots could very well be a result of a personal bias/preference. However, to further the cause of journalistic impartiality, yours truly will venture to provide a starting eleven keeping in mind the team's balance and players' form without giving a whiff of being a Liverpool supporter or the intense dislike for Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea that may or may not be harbored (caveat: a full bench of seven substitutes has been provided for those who could not be accommodated in the eleven, but deserve to play in it nonetheless).
Goalkeeper: Thibaut Courtois
Left-back: Thomas Vermaelen
Centre-backs: Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen
Right-back: Toby Alderweireld
Centre-defensive midfielders: Steven Defour, Axel Witsel
Attacking mid-fielders: Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Kevin Mirallas
Striker: Romelu Lukaku
Substitutes: Simon Mignolet, Anthony Vanden Borre, Daniel Van Buyten, Marouane Fellaini, Mousa Dembele, Nacer Chadli, Dries Mertens.
History at the World Cup
The current golden batch is the second such group for Belgium, with Wilmots being part of the previous lot. Having endured a rather, well, plain, patch between 1930 and 1970-they won only one match in the five tournaments they were involved in before 1982-Belgium qualified for six straight World Cups starting 1982. The original Belgian Golden Generation reached the knock-out stage five out of six times between 1982 and 2002, with only two goals in extra-time by Bernard Genghini and Manuel Amoros pushing them down to fourth place in their third-place tie against France in 1986.
|1930||Round 1 – 11th position|
|1934||Round 1 – 15th position|
|1938||Round 1 – 13th position|
|1954||Group stage – 12th position|
|1958||Did not qualify|
|1962||Did not qualify|
Did not qualify
|1970||Group stage – 10th position|
|1974||Did not qualify|
|1978||Did not qualify|
|1982||Round 2 – 10th position|
|1986||Semi finals – 4th position|
|1990||Round of 16 – 11th position|
|1994||Round of 16 – 11th position|
|1998||Group stage – 19th position|
|2002||Round of 16- 14th position|
|2006||Did not qualify|
|2010||Did not qualify|
Best Performance in a World Cup
Although 1982 was in some ways a watershed year for Belgium football-they beat defending champions Argentina in the group stage and qualified for the second round-, 1986 would be an overwhelming favourite for title of best performance, with only the genius of Diego Maradona stopping them from making the finals.
A win, a draw and a loss in Group B in 1986 meant that Belgium were the top-ranked team among those who finished third in their respective groups. But the struggles of the group stage were not carried over into the knockout rounds, with the fancied Soviet Union were beaten 4-3 in extra time of the Round of 16, after which Spain were beaten on penalties in the quarter-finals. The Argentines awaited in the semis, and two goals from Maradona ended Belgian hopes. As mentioned previously, they went on to lose in the tie for third place to France.
But there were honours aplenty for the Belgians at the end of the tournament. Goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff and captain and midfielder Jan Ceulemans made the All-Star Team, while Enzo Scifo was chosen as the best young player of the tournament.
Predictions: How far can Belgium go in 2014?
The group stage should be a formality if football was played on paper. Belgium share their group with Russia, Soutk Korea and Algeria, and should they finish top of their group, they could end up facing Portugal-unless a certain Cristiano Ronaldo drags Portugal to the top the group. In that case, the Germans would most likely await Belgium, making progression beyond the second round mighty difficult.
However, with a touch of luck, and they could meet Argentina in the quarterfinals.
BloombergSports sees Belgium topping its group with three wins, then beating Portugal 1-0, and eventually falling to Argentina by 1-0 scoreline.
If I was a betting man, I would put my money on a Second Round appearance for Belgium, and nothing more. But since I am not a betting man, and Ronaldo’s thigh looks dodgy at the moment, a quarterfinal place beckons for Wilmot and co.
To see other Team Previews : 2014 FIFA World Cup Team PreviewsPublished 31 May 2014, 20:43 IST