A manageable group for who many see as this year’s dark horses, Belgium will be looking to ease into the competition as well as seeking top spot, even though the advantage of that might be slim. Algeria is first up for Marc Wilmots’ men, and the Algerians might be the easiest team in the group to start with. A win will be seen as a must by Wilmots, to give his young, inexperienced Belgium team a much-needed confidence boost and quell their tournament nerves. Fabio Capello’s Russia is next, and though the Russians will rely more upon Capello’s tactical nous and vast experience rather than on the ability of the players, Capello do have a few experienced campaigners to call upon, with CSKA Moscow duo Igor Akinfeev and Alan Dzagoev providing the team’s spine. Belgium should have enough quality, on paper, to overcome the Russians. Asian opposition in the Korea Republic will be the final game, and like the Russians, there are only a few star names, with the likes of Swansea’s Ki Sung-Yeung and Arsenal flop Park Chu-Young in their ranks. With players mainly from the Korean League, there is some experience from the German Bundesliga and English Premier League.
The Belgians have quality across the park and generally have a good spine. The best young goalkeeper in the world right now, Thibaut Courtois, is ahead of Simon Mignolet, who plies his trade with recent Premier League runner-ups Liverpool. In defence is Vincent Kompany of reigning Premier League champions Manchester City, while the highly-rated Axel Witsel anchors the midfield. Up front there’s Chelsea duo Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku.
Belgium will probably have to rely on their midfield, or more specifically their attacking midfielders to find the much-needed spark and creativity to take the team far in this competition. Nacer Chadli, Kevin De Bruyne and Adnan Januzaj provide good competition and cover for first-choice wingers Kevin Mirallas and Hazard. Having been on-loan with Everton for the past season, Lukaku and Mirallas would have had a good understanding, while Hazard just simply, does his thing on the left side.
It will be intriguing to see if Moussa Dembélé, Witsel and Manchester United flop Marouane Fellaini can control and dominate the midfield area. This would then provide the platform for the attacking players to attack with more freedom, while giving the back four some much-needed protection.
There are definitely some weak points in this highly-rated Belgian side. First off, the quality of specialist full-backs is worrying, to the point that Wilmots will likely start with four specialist centre-backs, with Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen manning the defensive flanks. The potential lack of overlapping by the full-backs could result in the Belgian wingers having to find space for themselves or end up being double teamed by the opposition. Opposing managers will probably look for their wingers to dribble at Belgium’s full-backs, pushing up their own full-backs and overloading the flanks. Doubts also arise to whether back-up full-backs Anthony Vanden Borre or Laurent Ciman, both from the Belgian league, can do a job when called upon.
Further, as mentioned earlier, this Belgium team is young and lacking in tournament experience as well. Their last major international tournament was the 2002 edition, with only veteran defender Daniel van Buyten and current boss Wilmots part of that squad. Indeed, only van Buyten is over the age of 30, with more than half the squad (15 to be precise) under the age of 27. And as this will be Wilmots’ first taste of a major international tournament as manager, it will be as much a test for Wilmots as it will be for his players.
Wild Card: Kevin MirallasHazard’s performances lit up the Premier League last year to the extent that Wilmots can expect him to be heavily marked by opposition defenders. When this happens, Wilmots will hope Mirallas will step up and shoulder some of the creative responsibilities, and as mentioned, link up with former Everton team-mate Lukaku to potentially devastating effect.
Even without taking into account Hazard’s impact, Mirallas can do much damage for Belgium on his own. His direct style, dribbling at defenders and making penetrating runs into the penalty box from the flanks will make him a good out ball for Belgium, especially in the latter stages when they find themselves pinned by more prestigious opposition. This could be Mirallas’ breakthrough tournament, and potentially igniting the interest of the elite European clubs, which would definitely prove worrying for Everton.
Belgium should have enough in them to top their manageable group. However, they will likely face Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo, possible runners-up to Germany in Group G. This game will be pretty tight to call, with much depending on Belgium’s form in the tournament to that point and whether Ronaldo has hit the heights he is used to at Real Madrid. If Portugal successfully isolate the full-backs and utilise their wingers, of which one is a certain Ronaldo, Belgium will probably be under too much pressure and suffer as a result.
Overall though, Wilmots’ men should be aiming for a quarter-finals berth at the minimum, and overcoming an average Portugal side, plus Ronaldo, should be possible. A possible quarter-final meeting with tournament favourites Argentina, who will be much more accustomed to the South American climate, should be where Belgium’s journey end. Belief will definitely start seeping through if Belgium somehow overcome Lionel Messi and Argentina, but odds are the Argentineans will be coping better and disappoint many neutral supporters.