International Friendly: Belgium vs Saudi Arabia – Lineups, Preview and Prediction
Playing just one friendly is brave from Belgium this international break, and questions will still be asked even if they put Saudi Arabia to the sword.
19:45 BST, Tuesday 27th March, King Baudouin Stadium (Brussels, Belgium)
The 2018 World Cup in Russia is perhaps the last chance for the Belgian golden generation to achieve success. They showed promise at Euro 2016, but an injury crisis cost them against Wales in the quarterfinals.
In a group with fellow heavyweights England, preparation is key. It is some surprise to see Belgium playing just one friendly this international break, and against significantly weaker opposition in the form of Saudi Arabia, who have qualified for a first World Cup since 2006.
Perhaps working on tactics in training and resting his players with the domestic run-in is in Roberto Martinez’s mind, and we will not know if this is the right decision until the summer.
Last time out
Belgium 1-0 Japan (International friendly)
Romelu Lukaku became Belgium’s all-time record goalscorer in a cumbersome 1-0 victory over Japan in Brugge. Against a Japanese side without Shinji Kagawa, Belgium only landed four shots on target, but they did extend their unbeaten run to 15 games.
A better performance and more goals will be demanded by the Belgian fans against Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia 1-1 Ukraine (International friendly)
A 1-1 draw against useful opposition Ukraine in Marbella will have pleased coach Pizzi. Artem Kravets grabbed the opener for Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine, but Saudi star man Fahad Al Muwallad equalised before half time.
Ukraine created enough chances to win the tie, but the defensive efforts of the Green Falcons frustrated their opponents, and a draw was a fair result.
Thibaut Courtois and Jordan Lukaku have both pulled out of the Belgium squad, giving Roberto Martinez a selection headache.
After criticism of his back three/back five formation in November, the manager could shake things up in Brussels.
Saudi Arabia lineup
The impressive showing in Marbella should mean that Pizzi selects much of the same side that drew with Ukraine.
With a kind group at the World Cup in Russia, a shock result against Belgium could give Saudi Arabia the confidence to cause an upset this summer.
Key battle: Jan Vertonghen (Belgium) vs Fahad Al Muwallad (Saudi Arabia)
There are few threats for Belgium to worry about from the opposition, but Fahad Al Muwallad is the one danger for Saudi Arabia.
The 23-year-old has just joined Spanish side Levante after scoring 19 goals in a season and half with Al-Ittihad, and will no doubt be the talisman at the World Cup.
With uncertainty in the left wing-back position, there could be a weak-link for Al Muwallad to exploit, with Jan Vertonghen likely to be shoehorned in there.
If Martinez operates for a more attacking alternative, Al Muwallad will be licking his lips on the counter-attack.
Stick or twist?
Roberto Martinez’s tactics were questioned by his own player Kevin De Bruyne following the 3-3 draw with Mexico in November. The manager could change his system to a more conventional four at the back, but he would have to drop one of his more creative players.
Playing De Bruyne in a central midfield pairing isn’t beneficial either, with the Manchester City superstar needing the licence to join up with the attack. Moussa Dembele, a man in fine form with Tottenham, also struggles to fit into the system. Martinez needs to find a solution.
Limited on the left
Left wing-back is an issue for Belgium at the minute. Nacer Chadli played there during both friendlies in November, but it’s anyone guess who will come in against Saudi Arabia.
Chadli is out of the squad, Jordan Lukaku is injured making it a free-for-all between Jan Vertonghen, Yannick Carrasco, Kevin Mirallas, Divock Origi, Thorgan Hazard and the unknown Anthony Limbombe.
The lack of depth in defence cost Belgium at Euro 2016 and given the squad’s injury troubles they could come unstuck again in Russia.
Prediction: Belgium 3-0 Saudi Arabia
Belgium may be 15 games unbeaten but they haven’t faced anyone higher than 17th in the world during that run, and that was the 3-3 draw against Mexico.
They will defeat Saudi Arabia, but the lack of competition so close to a World Cup is a worry.
Can Belgium go all the way in Russia? Let us know in the comments section below.