Secret’s out: Belgium more than dark horses to impress at World Cup
Since securing qualification for their first World Cup finals since 2002 – courtesy of Romelu Lukaku’s brace in hostile Croatian cauldron, the Maksimir – Belgium have failed to win.
Red Devils coach Marc Wilmots knows the old adage form is temporary but class is permanent, however, and his roster for Brazil will be packed full of talent. So much so, in fact, that competition for spots in the Belgian XI will be cut-throat.
The tag of dark horses simply won’t do for a side rated by Coral as fifth-favourites at 14/1 – ahead of former World Cup winners England, France, Italy and Uruguay – to lift the trophy on South American soil.
Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ had to watch on enviously four years ago as the neighbouring Netherlands went all the way to the final in South Africa. It is ironic the Clockwork Orange are now deemed to be half as likely to be World Cup winners as them at 28/1.
Wolfsburg’s Kevin de Bruyne – ditched by Chelsea in January – was Red Devils top-scorer in qualifying from midfield but, like so many squad members, he is not sure of a starting berth.
Premier League audiences are privy to several head-to-head battles going on this season, which will decide whether certain players are in Wilmots’ XI, or have to be content on the Belgian bench.
A back four comprised entirely of natural centre halves looks likely, although Anderlecht (and former Portsmouth loanee) right back Anthony Vanden Borre recently earned a recall for the first time in over two years.
Fitting the likes of Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Daniel van Buyten (Bayern Munich) and Toby Alderweireld (Atletico Madrid) into a starting line-up simply isn’t possible.
Can such players, who line up against one another regularly in England’s top-flight or in Europe, gel to form a formidable defensive unit? It’s not just the back four where Wilmots has an embarrassment of riches either.
Liverpool stopper Simon Mignolet is vying with Thibaut Courtois – owned by Chelsea, but at Atletico with Alderweireld – for the number one jersey. This is a particularly tough call as there is a potential scenario where both have kept goal for title-winning teams in England and Spain.
Midfield is surely Belgium’s richest vein, though, with no fewer than a dozen names competing for five spots behind a lone striker. Radja Nainggolan of Roma and teenage PSV Eindhoven winger Zakaria Bakkali appear to be relying on injuries to more illustrious players to make the plane for Brazil.
It’s possible for Wilmots to pick an all-Premier League midfield quintet of Mousa Dembele (Spurs) and Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United) deep, and Kevin Mirallas (Everton), Eden Hazard (Chelsea) and Nacer Chadli (also Spurs) as an advanced trio.
There are also the claims of veteran stager Timmy Simons (Club Brugge), Axel Witsel (Zenit St Petersburg) and Steven Defour (Porto) to consider in the middle of the park too.
Lukaku must fend off competition from Aston Villa’s leading man Christian Benteke up front. The Everton loanee – another Belgian owned by Chelsea – has one more goal in all competitions than his compatriot. For Wilmots, it is toss of a coin stuff and they are equal 33/1 shots to win the World Cup Golden Boot.
That deadly striking duo apart, someone would have to come in from the fringes. Genk’s Jelle Vossen looks most likely, but 20-year-old Standard Liege attacker Michy Batshuayi, who is the leading marksman in the Belgian top-flight, could crash the World Cup party.
With Belgium, then, the potential for them to make inroads is there. They are odds-on favourites to top Group H, which also contains Algeria, Russia and South Korea, at 8/13 and to qualify for the knockout phase at 1/6.
If they can avoid Germany in the round of 16, then a run to the quarters or semi-finals is well within the bounds of possibility. Odds of 4/1 to say the last eight will be the Red Devils’ point of departure and 7/1 on them exiting Brazil in the penultimate round.