World Cup 2018: Belgium Preview

With Belgium's Golden Generation coming into the peak of their footballing lives, now is the time for them to push for silverware.


REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

There can only be so long in a football team’s existence that they are labelled ‘dark horses’ before the realisation is made that they are actually just a very good side.

For Belgium, European football’s dark horses, this natural evolution has been complicated by a series of managerial appointments that have raised eyebrows around the fraternities of international football.

The most recent of these, Roberto Martinez – ably assisted by Thierry Henry – has perhaps offered something of an upgrade on his predecessor Marc Wilmots. However, it remains to be seen how De Rode Duivels perform in Russia this summer.

On paper, their squad is good enough to hold off any comers. International football, though, is less about personnel and more about making eleven players work well together over a relatively short stretch of time.

The (to most people inexplicable) omission of Radja Nainggolan from the 28-man provisional squad suggests that Martinez is thinking about inter-personal dynamics as well as intrinsic talent. If Belgium fail to impress, though, it will be upon the Spaniard’s head.

Route to Russia

Group H of the European World Cup Qualifiers presented Belgium with very few problems in the end and they comfortably rode out the group leaders a full nine points ahead of Greece in second place.

In the end, Greece were the only team who caused Roberto Martinez’s side with any problems when they drew 1-1 in March. However, this was simply a blip in an otherwise exemplary qualifying process.

Elsewhere in the group, Belgium managed some cricket scores: scoring three or more in seven of their ten games with a 9-0 drubbing of Gibraltar and an 8-1 win over Estonia being the highlights.

By the time the group came to a conclusion, Romelu Lukaku had racked up 11 goals, his closest challengers being Eden Hazard and Kostas Mitroglou on six.

Starting XI

The Belgian Men’s National Football Team has an embarrassment of riches at its disposal with only a couple of thin spots in the squad.

Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois has been a stalwart for the team for a number of years now. He’ll be protected by the two Tottenham centre-backs, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, playing alongside one of Thomas Vermaelen or Vincent Kompany.

With Radja Nainggolan omitted, it looks likely that Martinez will go with a Kevin De Bruyne/Axel Witsel two-man midfield flanked by Yannick Carrasco and Thomas Meunier with the option of Nacer Chadli or Jordan Lukaku on the bench.

In the front three positions, Belgium have the enviable forward options of Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens supporting Romelu Lukaku. 

Key Player

With a player like Kevin De Bruyne in the side, it is hard to look beyond him to determine where the difference will come for Belgium.

Reuters/Carl Recine

While Mohamed Salah was an obvious choice for the PFA Player of the Year in the Premier League at the end of the season, De Bruyne was the more subtle option.

Where the midfielder makes a difference is in his ability to create chances, picking up the highest number of assists and second assists (the pass before the assist) in the Premier League last season.

Given that Belgium have a front three who will thrive off chance creation, De Bruyne will be the linchpin around which the Belgium attacking play will pivot.

Get that right and De Rode Duivels could cause a few upsets in the later stages of the tournament.

Group stage matchup

As the highest seeds in the group, the expectation will be that Belgium top their group.

However, given their infamous struggles to perform in competition over the last decade, their top-heavy team and a manager who is already under pressure before the tournament has even begun, it could well be the case that their main rivals - England - pip them to the post.

With Tunisia and Panama the other two teams in the group, it would be highly unlikely for Belgium to undergo a group-stage upset.

Prediction

The two teams who finish in the top two places in Group G will face one of the two teams finishing in the top spots of Group H with the top team in one group facing the second-placed team in the other group.

Group H includes Poland, Senegal, Colombia and Japan and, although it seems likely that Japan will finish last, after that it's anyone's guess in one of the most open groups in the competition.

Belgium should be able to beat any of Poland, Senegal or Colombia. However, regardless of their route through the Round of 16 they will almost certainly come up against Brazil or Germany.

A quarter-final finish, then, seems like the best outcome for Belgium.

What do you think? How will Belgium do this summer? Let us know by commenting below.

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Jon Mackenzie

Jon Mackenzie is the Football Editor at RealSport.

Regularly appearing on talkSPORT radio, his work has also featured in The Economist, The Blizzard, Tifo Football and on the Futbolgrad Network.

A UEFA and Premier League-accredited journalist, Jon also founded A Team of John O'Sheas podcast and hosts it every week.

Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Mackenzie

 

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