Apart from the usual suspects Spain, Brazil and Germany, Belgium has often been called a ‘shadow-favourite’ to finish high in this World Cup. Being from Belgium myself, I am of course over the moon to see my nation finally represented once more at the greatest event in football. Yet, I will attempt to keep a clear mind, and assess them as I would any other team.
This generation of Belgian players is the best the small country has ever produced, with many of them playing in the Premier League or other top competitions in Europe. With the likes of Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, just to name a few, Belgium can bring some pedigree to the field.
As I have stated in Brazil’s preview, great players don’t always make a great team. Many times has a side fallen to internal strife, but the chances of this happening to the Belgian Red Devils are slim. Serving as captain on the field is Vincent Kompany, a true leader of men, and at the helm of it all is Marc Wilmots, who has succeeded in building a dedicated and cohesive team out of a band of talented youngsters. More so, many players grew up with each other, or know each other from their time at their youth academies, making them more than colleagues or compatriots, namely friends. And if you have to spend a few weeks abroad, away from your family, who would you rather have with you than friends?
While Belgium’s centre backs have plenty of quality, good full-backs are in short supply. Making due in the qualifications with natural central defenders Alderweireld on the right and Vertonghen on the left, this crucial position has been the thorn in Belgium’s side for many years, with Wilmots resorting to Belgian Pro League players Vanden Borre and Ciman as substitutes.
The lack of strikers has been a recurring issue in the Belgium side as well, made worse by Christian Benteke’s long-term injury. Romelu Lukaku has proven himself in the Premier League this season, scoring 15 goals for Everton, but he has yet to earn his spurs on an international level. Whether the powerful striker is up to the task of leading the attack is still in the air. Should he not be, Belgium is in big trouble, with only youngster Divock Origi – first-timer in the national team – to serve as a replacement.
Having mentioned Christian Benteke, other Belgian internationals have had dodgy seasons, either because of injury or lack of playing time, but mediocre seasons nonetheless. The main example is Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen. Still a certainty in defence last year, but now demoted to benchwarmer in Wenger’s side, who has favoured the duo Koscielny – Mertesacker. Should he fall through, there aren’t many options available to take his place, apart from Zenit’s Nicholas Lombaerts.
The hype around the Red Devils has become tangible here in Belgium, but the people’s expectations, along with the lack of suitable players on some key positions, could mean the team’s downfall. Belgium will end first in their group, surprise in the round of 16, to be defeated in the quarter finals.