World Cup Team Preview: Belgium Still Have Something to Prove Despite Dark Horse Tag
The squad that coach Marc Wilmots has put together ahead of the World Cup has long been called a dark horse contender to lift the trophy in Brazil. The Royal Belgian Football Association (RBFA) rewarded Wilmots with a two-year extension for an impressive qualifying run. At one point Belgium won seven matches in a row, helping them top the group by nine points over Croatia.
Despite the momentum and their status as media darlings, there is still a lot for Belgium to prove once they get to Brazil.
Christian Benteke went down with a severe Achilles injury, which lessened the firepower up front. He was having an up and down year at Aston Villa. Luckily Romelu Lukaku has been regaining form at Everton and looks ready to take on the bulk of the striker responsibilities. Roberto Martinez has gotten a lot out of the striker while on loan to Everton. Lukaku brings a physical presence at 6-foot-3, but has shown a willingness to learn while taking the opportunity to play every week.
There is a question of depth in the attack. Zakaria Bakkali is the only other striker that has been called up in recent history, but it was for his only match with the national team. There is the possible addition of Adnan Januzaj after his recent declaration to play for Belgium. However, some of his potential teammates have suggested he is not ready and urged Wilmots not to select the youngster.
This is the most dynamic spot on the field for Belgium. Eden Hazard and Kevin Mirallas are dealing with injuries currently, but should be ready to go when training begins. Hazard was developing into the most exciting player in the Premier League before his injury. He has flexibility in the middle, but is really fun to watch when he gets into the attacking zone.
Wilmots will have plenty of players to choose from for this position and has to enjoy that Kevin De Bruyne has been getting playing time at Wolfsburg after a January transfer. Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel will be asked to take over the defensive duties in the middle.
The defense has names everyone knows, but there are players being asked to play out of their primary position. Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld have been playing the edges lately, but they generally play centrally for their club teams. They have a stockpile of central defenders, so they are putting a lot of faith in the flexibility of their players.
Daniel Van Buyten is the leading scorer on this version of the Belgium squad and will pair centrally with Vincent Kompany. Kompany has been inconsistent and made a couple critical errors this year. Van Buyten also has the most caps of his teammates and has dealt with injuries this year.
Thibaut Courtois will be in goal and has been stellar for Atletico Madrid. At the age of 21, he is in the discussion for best goalkeeper in Europe this season.
This is a very good team on paper, but the World Cup is an entirely different animal. They have not been to the World Cup since 2002. It will be up to Wilmots to take his World Cup experience and provide leadership to his group. The biggest concerns may be the age of the back line, along with players out of position. Alderweireld hasn’t been playing much for his club team either.
They should get out of the group as South Korea and Russia battle for second place. However, they will have a very difficult matchup in the round of 16 and in the quarterfinals. The bracket does not fall nicely for Belgium, and they will be out before the semifinals.