A look at Belgium’s golden generation who will shoulder the hopes and dreams of a nation as they attempt to go all the way at the European Championships in France.
Belgium go into the tournament as genuine title contenders. They were widely regarded as the ‘dark-horses’ of the 2014 World Cup, but two years on, it is safe to say they are a side that should be competing for the very top honours in the international game. Anything less that a semi-final spot will be seen as a major disappointment and rightly so. This Belgium side consists of the most talented set of players to be produced by the country till date. Their narrow quarter-final loss to eventual finalists Argentina in the World Cup two years ago could be put down to a lack of experience, but even then more was expected out of them and it was clear that they had under-performed in that tournament. They won each of their matches by only a one goal difference against teams like Algeria, South Korea and Russia.
Belgium had a relatively easy route to qualification, finishing top in Group B. They drew twice and lost only once. It started off with a 6-0 demolition of Andorra. This was followed by a 1-1 draw against Bosnia-Herzegovina where they needed Radja Nainggolan to bail them out in the second half. They were held to a goal-less draw by a visiting Wales side in November. They later thrashed Cyprus 5-0 at home in March. Two days later, they beat Israel 1-0 courtesy a Fellaini goal in Jerusalem. In June, Gareth Bale put his side ahead and helped Wales to a 1-0 win in Cardiff. In September, Belgium ran out 3-1 winners against Bosnia-Herzegovina in Brussels. 3 days later, Hazard scored to help the Red Devils to a 0-1 win against Cyprus in Nicosia. In the final two rounds of qualification, Belgium beat Andorra away 1-4 and 3 days later on the 13th of October, they beat Israel 3-1 in Brussels to seal European qualification.
In group E, they have drawn alongside Italy, who will be looking to make amends for a disastrous World Cup following that crushing defeat to Spain in the finals in 2012, as well as Sweden and the Republic Of Ireland.
1. Thibaut Courtois (age 24): Chelsea
2. Simon Mignolet (age 27): Liverpool
3. Jean-François Gillet (age 37): Mechelen
Thibaut Courtois, despite his horrid season at Chelsea, is still one of the best shot-stoppers on the planet. He will be Marc Wilmots’ first choice goalkeeper. Simon Mignolet from Liverpool will be the second choice to the now former Premier League champion.
Mignolet has come under stark criticism for his blew par performances over the past two seasons at Liverpool. But the 27 year old is often capable of putting in match-winning performances and would serve as a good backup when called upon. Third choice keeper is the veteran Jean-François Gillet. The 37-year-old is is on loan at Belgian side Mechelen from Catania.
1. Jan Vertonghen (age 29): Tottenham Hotpsur
2. Jordan Lukaku (age 21): Oostende
3. Toby Alderweireld (age 27): Tottenham Hotspur
4. Thomas Vermaelen (age 30): Barcelona
5. Jason Denayer (age 20): Galatasaray
6. Christian Kabasele (age 25): Genk
7. Laurent Ciman (age 30): Montreal Impact
8. Thomas Meunier (age 24): Club Brugge
Marc Wilmots’ greatest problem will be his defence. He will be without iconic Captain Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts at centre-back. This gives the 47-year-old the dilemma of choosing between two or possibly three defensive formations.
Tottenham’s centerback pairing of Alderweireld and Vertonghen have been the best in the Premier League this past season, if not in Europe. But come June, we may see them deployed at fullback positions. Thomas Vermaelen and Jason Denayer will take over at centre-back in that scenario. At 20, Denayer seems way too inexperienced to shoulder the responsibility of being the man at the center of Belgium’s defence. Thomas Vermaelen has rarely played for Barcelona due to injuries in both seasons and questions would be raised if he were to even make the starting XI. But given their injury woes, it wouldn’t seem too surprising.
De Rode Duivels aren’t at a complete loss, however. They do have Jordan Lukaku and Thomas Meuinier for the left and right back positions, who have both impressed. It seems logical to play the players at their natural positions but Marc Wilmots may have plans of his own.
1. Eden Hazard (age 25): Chelsea
2. Radja Nainggolan (age 28): Roma
3. Axel Witsel (age 27): Zenit St.Petersburg
4. Marouane Fellaini (age 28): Manchester United
5. Mousa Dembele (age 28): Tottenham Hotspur
6. Kevin De Bruyne (age 24): Manchester City
7. Yannick Carrasco (age 22): Atletico Madrid
8. Dries Mertens (age 29): Napoli
Where they lack in defence, they make up for it in the middle of the pitch. The Belgians boast a midfield to rival that of the very best in the competition, right up there with Germany, Spain and Croatia. They have the tenacious Radja Nainggolan and Zenit’s Axel Witsel to set up shop in the center of the park. Marounne Fellaini’s physical presence in midfield will be an immense benefit during set pieces.
Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne are sure starters in the team, with the latter enjoying a brilliant debut season at Manchester City. Dries Mertens, who has had a good season at Napoli, is expected to take charge at the right wing. Champions League final goal scorer Yannick Carrasco is also expected to see a good amount of game time in the tournament.
The trickery of Hazard and De Bruyne, the pace of Mertens and the technical tenacity of Nainggolan and Witsel in the middle of the park are sure to light up the tournament. If these players play to their potential, then we should be in for a 10th new name on the Henri Delaunay trophy.
1. Romelu Lukaku (age 23): Everton
2. Christian Benteke (age 25): Liverpool
3. Divock Origi (age 21): Liverpool
4. Michy Batshuayi (age 22): Marseille
Romelu Lukaku is coming off a good 25-goal season with Everton, even if the goals did dry up a bit towards the end. The same can’t be said for Christian Benteke, who has had an extremely frustrating season and has scored only 3 goals since December. His team-mate Divock Origi is also present in the squad after impressing towards the end of his first full Liverpool campaign. Michy Batshuayi is likely going to be second choice to Romelu Lukaku after a superb spell at Marseille in the previous campaign. A tweak in formation may even include him in the starting XI. With 17 goals and 6 assists in the league this season, the 22-year-old has been linked with moves to Europe’s top clubs, including Chelsea and Barcelona.
Belgium’s strikers are going into the competition with mixed form, collectively. The forwards lineup isn’t set in stone and Wilmots is likely to change them according to their opponents or the circumstances of a game. He surely has a wealth of talented bunch to choose from, if not the most reliable.
Predicted Starting XI
Wilmots is likely to stick to his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Chelsea’s Courtois is to start between the posts and he will have his London rivals Tottenham Hotspur’s centre-back pairing of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen in front of him. They are likely to be flanked by Jordan Lukaku and Thomas Meunier on the left and right fullback positions respectively.
Radja Nainggolan and Axel Witsel are expected to provide the defensive cover and help in the transition from defence to attack. Nainggolan will be deployed as a sort of box-to-box midfielder tasked with helping out in defence and in retaining possession and Witsel will be charged with keeping it and distribution to the forward attackers.
Eden Hazard will be deployed on the left wing and Mertens on the right. De Bruyne can also be deployed on the right, but his trickery, distribution and his ability to score from far out would make him a perfect fit for the role in behind the striker. Mertens’ pace and crossing would be put to better use on the right.
Lukaku is the first choice to lead the Red Devils’ attack in France. Mishy Batshuayi is a probable second choice and may be brought on if another striker is needed in the game.
Courtois; J. Lukaku, Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Meunier; Witsel, Nainggolan; Hazard, De Bruyne, Mertens; Lukaku
Manager: Marc Wilmots
The 47-year-old is Belgium’s top scorer for the men’s national team in the World Cup with 5 goals. He started his career with Sint-Truiden and has gone on to ply his trade in France with Bordeaux, Belgium again with Standard Liege and Mechelen, and two spells at Schalke04. He would go on to win trophies at Mechelen, Liege and Schalke04. He has been given two notable nicknames over the course of his career – one is ‘Das Kampfschwein’ which translates to ‘The Warpig’ from his time at Schalke04 and in Belgium, he was known as the Bull of Dongelberg. The attacking midfielder would go on to make 70 appearances and score 28 goals for his country.
After accumulating club 492 appearances and scoring 154 club goals in a 16-year career in club football, he had a small, unsuccessful stint in politics where he was elected into the Senate of the French-speaking liberal party, ‘Mouvement Réformateur‘ in 2003. He would later resign in 2005 in what was then a very criticized move.
Moving on from politics, he joined Schalke04 as a manager in 2003 for 3 months. In 2004, he joined Sint-Truiden and stayed on as manager for 8 months. Between 2009 to 2012, he served as assistant manager in the Belgium national team under both Dick Advocaat and Georges Leekens. In 201,2 he took over as interim manager and then was later appointed on a permanent basis. Since he took over, this Belgium side have grown and matured and he can be credited with keeping a squad of young superstars united and grounded, and instilling in them a sense of confidence to take on any major side. His reign has even seen the Belgium national team be ranked at number 1 in the world in the FIFA World Rankings.
Predicted finish: Semi-finals
Though Wilmots’ men are quite capable of going all the way in France, it is yet to be seen whether they can build on their success and deliver on the grandest stage. Some of their players are not coming off of great individual seasons and they should try and hit their stride sooner rather than later. We are yet to be convinced that Belgium are better as a whole than the sum of it’s parts. More often than than not one gets the impression that for all of that individual brilliance, there is a sense of arrogance. This would prove ‘hazardous’ to their chances while coming up against the likes of Italy, Sweden and Ireland in their group.
Now, the excuses inexperience will not hold up any longer. Les Diables Rouges are as close as one can be to achieving a perfect balance of youth and experience. Barring a few injuries including to that of Captain Vincent Kompany, the Belgians have had a full strength squad with exciting new talent to pick from. With experienced title winners in the form of Eden Hazard, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Courtois, Witsel and De Bruyne, the talent is undoubted. It will be the character and the leadership that is put on display which will take the Devils forwards and the fans will hope that their players can step up to the plate and help their team to a better finish than the one in 1980. Should they decide to bring out the big guns from the very start of the tournament, 10 years from now we may very well be talking about the greatness of this ‘golden generation’ rather than what could have been.