For perennial dark horses Belgium and their star-studded squad, it is time to break free from a heavy burden placed on them by the media and public, and do so for good. Having been built up as a nation that could potentially threaten the big boys in recent tournaments – before falling short of requirements – it is now time to go out and deliver.
The road to Russia
The Red Devils qualified from a fairly meagre group containing relatively mediocre opponents. As the old saying goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you – and Roberto Martinez’s men did so with consummate ease.
In a group which consisted of former European champions Greece, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was Belgium who emerged supreme. Scoring 43 goals and only conceding six in return, they wiped the floor with all in their path, winning nine matches and drawing once.
Despite Martinez seemingly not universally supported, with his defensive nous being questioned, Belgium hardly had to get out of second gear throughout qualifying; though they were, at times, a sight to behold on the attacking end of the spectrum. The ease with which they qualified makes it slightly more difficult to predict how they will fare against stronger opposition.
How do they play?
While Belgium’s squad allows for Martinez to tinker with his set-up in a number of different ways, it is no secret that he has preferred to line up in a 3-5-2 formation.
With wide men acting as wing-backs – in the shape of Thomas Meunier and Yannick Carrasco – to help the back three defensively, it also allows them to push further up the pitch to support Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens when in possession. Kevin De Bruyne will likely sit in a deep lying play-making position next to one of Mousa Dembele or Axel Witsel, which gives him the space in the middle of the park to dictate the tempo of the play.
Because of the wing-backs pushing on further up the pitch, Hazard and Mertens can be deadly on the counter attack, with their pace and guile on the ball pulling defenders towards them, allowing Romelu Lukaku to find pockets of space around the box. Lukaku scored 11 times during the ten qualifying matches; following a solid first season for Manchester United, he will be hoping he can add to his 34 international goals, and fire his side into the latter stages of the competition this summer.
Who are their star players?
All across the pitch, Belgium’s squad is full of stars. If we have to pick, though…
The brilliance of Eden Hazard will be on show for the world to see, and his energy and skill could be the difference when the game is tight. He’ll be keen to show that a rocky season with Chelsea was an exception rather than the norm.
In Kevin De Bruyne, meanwhile, they have one of the best players in the world, and one who has shown over the course of last season that he deserves to be in the Ballon d’Or conversation.
Away from the Premier League, Dries Mertens has enjoyed a tremendous season with Napoli. At the age of 31, he is finally producing top performances on a regular basis, and would do well to grab what could be his last opportunity to shine at a World Cup.
How far will they go?
Despite a group that features a vibrant and young England team, I fully expect Belgium to top the group. I believe they will have too much for England, Panama, and Tunisia in Group G, and should progress to at least the quarter-final stage.
The quarter-finals are where it gets tricky, and if the groups go the way I expect them to, then it looks like a match up with Brazil could await them here.
While a victory here wouldn’t be an insurmountable task, it’s unlikely – after all, individual brilliance can only get you so far. I think the whole country would be disappointed should they not reach at least the quarter-finals; however, with a slice of luck, a semi-final wouldn’t be out of the question. This is where I expect the road to end for Roberto Martinez’s side.
What should we watch out for?
One thing to watch out for in particular with this team – the boisterous fans that will no doubt travel in support of the team. Don’t be surprised when you are engulfed by a sea of red upon the opening game in Sochi.
While the fans will travel in great numbers, it will be interesting to see how the dynamic between them and manager Roberto Martinez pans out. He has been heavily criticised in recent weeks following the baffling omission of Roma’s Radja Nainggolan from the squad, and it is feared that no matter the outcome of this summer, his head will be on the chopping block come the end of the tournament.
On the pitch, it is hard to look past the potential exploits of Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard. Now being talked about on a global stage, it will be encapsulating to see how they get on with the whole world watching. If they can deliver the goods, then it could well be a fruitful summer for all in support of De Rode Duivels Les Diables Rouges Die Roten Teufel.