No football enthusiast is unfamiliar with Belgium in recent times. This is a country that after producing very little in the previous decades now has world class gems like Thibaut Courtois, Axel Witsel, Vincent Kompany, Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku and recently crowned PFA Young Player of the Year in the Premier League, Eden Hazard.
After not having even come close to qualifying for the previous World Cup, Belgium flew through their group this time round, and managed to do it whilst remaining undefeated. The quality of the team and their consistent performances propelled the Belgian national team into the top 10 of the FIFA International rankings, albeit temporarily.
Probable Squad for WC 2014
With Christian Benteke set to miss the event with an injury, Marc Wilmots’ side pretty much picks itself based on performances in the qualifiers and friendlies.
Goalkeeper: Thibaut Courtois has been massive for Atletico Madrid and has managed 20 clean sheets in the league this season. The 20-year-old shot stopper also has one of the best saves per goal conceded ratios in Europe.
Defence: Toby Alderweireld seems to be the preferred RB for Wilmots, with Vertonghen slotting in at LB after some stellar performances for Tottenham. Vincent Kompany naturally starts at the heart of the defence with Thomas Vermaelen accompanying him. Wilmots may just be willing to shuffle the Arsenal man out of the lineup and bring in Daniel Van Buyten who gives a better balance to the team.
Midfield: Marouane Fellaini being deployed as a lone holding player with Axel Witsel for support seems to be a solid partnership in the middle of the park. Wolfsburg’s Kevin DeBruyne could well start as the advanced midfielder, but this is a position where Wilmots will have a lot of options with both Thorgan Hazard of Zulte-Waregem (on loan from Chelsea) and Radja Nainggolan of Roma having impressed enough to earn call ups; the younger Hazard might just miss out due to his age and inexperience but it’s difficult to imagine Wilmots ignoring the best player from the Jupiler League.
Strike-force: Eden Hazard has proven exactly why he was one of the most sought after wingers in European football two years ago with his performances in this season, and it is difficult to imagine any scenario in which a fully fit Hazard doesn’t start any game for Belgium. Kevin Mirallas has been a mainstay in the national team for quite a while now and will slot into his preferred right sided role. Romelu Lukaku is the obvious choice at centre forward with Benteke injured and his performances in the EPL have shown that he is more than capable of bullying entire defences single-handedly.
This is what the formation will look like:
With options like Dembele, van Buyten, Simon Mignolet on the bench, it makes the Belgian squad a force to be reckoned with.
Strenghts and Weaknesses
The players from the squad being relatively young, they share a fantastic bond with each other – right from Kompany to Lukaku, the whole team really feels like one unit. Their style of play has also impressed many a neutrals as Wilmots has them playing a very effective system in which every player knows his defensive duties and they are still able to break quickly on the counter.
This obviously does not mean that the players lack patience, as they are willing to hold on to the ball and keep on pushing and probing till they find an opening if necessary. With players like Hazard and Mirallas in the ranks, they often look to create 1-on-1 situations for these creative wingers to take advantage of.
Another area at which this squad excels is dead ball situations. Both De Bruyne and Hazard are fantastic at delivering the ball into just the right areas or have a shot at goal if it is on. With the aerial abilities of Fellaini, Kompany, Lukaku, Mirallas and Vertonghen inside the box, they are never an easy team to mark from set pieces.
Defence is the one place where the Belgians face problems with the lack of pure, world class full backs. Many a times however, Captain Kompany is there to pick up the pieces and bail them out of trouble. His reading of the game and tackling ability make him a brilliant aggressive partner in a central pairing and he can stop the best players in their tracks when he is on song.
Considering their group and their potential, Belgium should be able to finish top of the group and advance to the round of 16 with relative ease. Here they will probably meet one of Germany or Portugal; both of which will be very tough games considering the quality of the opposition. They might still be able to pull off an upset against Portugal though, and book their place in the quarterfinals.
From not being able to qualify for the event to being favourites to top their group in Brazil, Belgium have come a long, long way in terms of overall development. Belgium might prove to be the dark horse in this mega race – but even if they are not, a round of 16 berth is hardly anything to be ashamed of.