Belgium will look to clinch a spot in the FIFA World Cup 2022 with a win against Estonia in Saturday’s qualifier at the King Baudouin Stadium, Brussels.

After their recent disappointment in last month’s UEFA Nations League Finals, suffering gruelling defeats to France and Italy, Belgium will be desperate to get back on track over the next week. Roberto Martinez & co. are en route to wrapping up another year as the world’s No. 1 ranked nation, which speaks volumes about their consistent performances in qualifying games of competitions.

While there is no denying the Red Devils’ ‘Golden Generation’ of talent has failed to deliver the goods when it mattered the most in the knockout stages of major tournaments boasting an underwhelming track record, Belgium’s knack of cruising through the qualifying campaigns cannot be disregarded.

The Red Devils are again dominating their group and have already qualified for the playoff rounds confirming that 2nd spot with a narrow 1-0 win over Belarus in their last qualifying game. Since only one side can directly advance from Group E, the Belgians sit atop in the standings with 16 points from six games, five clear of Wales behind them.

A victory over Estonia at home turf on Saturday should be enough to secure first place with one match remaining. If indeed the inconceivable happens and Belgium loses, coupled with Wales defeating Belarus, an incredibly tricky situation emerges as they will need to come out with at least a draw in Cardiff next week.

Meanwhile, Estonia are already eliminated at fourth-placed in Group E, and despite their narrow 1-0 loss to Wales in their last qualifier, the Balkan outfit are in relatively good stead. Thomas Haberli’s side had a positive year so far in terms of results and displays.

Sinisärgid earlier won their first Baltic Cup, and this followed a well-deserved draw against Wales and a 2-0 success over Belarus on their home soil. Haberli’s men will again be vying to cause a massive upset at Brussels on Saturday night. The Hard Tackle now takes a closer look at the squads ahead of this matchup in Rome.

Team News & Tactics

Belgium

Belgium boss Roberto Martinez will have to rotate heavily with a number of regular players missing through injury issues but taking into account Red Devils’ star-studded squad, this might not be a hindrance in their preparation for Saturday’s game against Estonia.

Youri Tielemans and Toby Alderweireld have been ruled out due to injuries sustained last month, while Romelu Lukaku is still recovering from an ankle injury he picked in Chelsea’s Champions League clash against Malmo. The Red Devils will also be without the services of Michy Batshuayi, Jeremy Doku and Thomas Vermaelen.

Martinez will set up Belgium in his preferred 3-4-2-1 formation, with attacking wing-backs pushing high to provide width and support to the forward players. Thibaut Courtois will take his place between the sticks. Guarding him in a three-man central defensive unit should be the trio of Dedryck Boyata, Jason Denayer and Jan Vertonghen.

Axel Witsel and Hans Vanaken will form the double midfield pivot. Witsel will provide the necessary balance with his gritty defensive work laying the foundations while the latter offers intelligent progression and dynamism between attack and defence. Out wide, Alexis Saelemaekers and Yannick Carrasco are expected to be the two wing-backs. Both will be encouraged to set up their camps high on the pitch to break up Estonia’s defensive block.

In the absence of Lukaku and Batshuayi, Christian Benteke will get a rare chance to lead the line from the front, with Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard facilitating the attack sitting just behind the Crystal Palace striker.

Probable Lineup (3-4-2-1): Courtois; Denayer, Boyata, Vertonghen; Saelemaekers, Witsel, Vanaken, Carrasco; De Bruyne, Hazard; Benteke 

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Estonia

Like his counterpart in the Belgium dugout, Estonia boss Thomas Haberli also faces several injury issues to his key players. First-choice goalkeeper Karl Hein, starting midfielders Mattias Kait and Bogdan Vastsuk have pulled out of the squad through injury and will need to be replaced. Vladislav Kreida and Henri Anier are set to return from their bans, but Märten Kuusk will miss through suspension.

Haberli usually prefers a 5-3-2 formation that offers his side an added protection at the back, which would be vital considering they will miss the stability given to them by their usual starters. Hein has been impressive between the sticks for Estonia in recent months, but the Arsenal teenage talent will miss the tie with injury. Hence Matvei Igonen looks likely to start in goal.

Maksim Paskotsi, Karol Mets and Joonas Tamm will try to form a resolute three-man backline, looking to sustain Belgium’s bombarding assaults. Artur Pikk and Taijo Teniste will operate as full-backs; they are expected to be pinned back by Belgium’s dominating wing-backs. Kreida, Konstantin Vassiljev and Marcus Poom should make up the midfield trio, assigned duties to stop Belgium’s runners.

The trio will need to put in a defensive shift to help out the backline and progress the ball quickly to their forwards or on flanks to initiate counter-attacks. Anier should partner Rauno Sappinen in a two-man frontline vying to catch Belgium’s backline off-guard. They will have to work with a relatively smaller pool of goal-scoring chances.

Probable Lineup (5-3-2): Igonen; Teniste, Paskotsi, Mets, Tamm, Pikk; Kreida, Vassiljev, Poom; Anier, Sappinen

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Key Stats

  • Belgium boast an unsurprisingly excellent track record against Estonia, having won six of the seven matches played between the two sides.
  • Belgium have won five of the six qualifying games played so far (D1), while they have netted a whopping 21 goals and have conceded only four.
  • Estonia have only registered a single victory in their opening six World Cup Qualifying fixtures (4L 1D).
  • Belgium have emerged victorious in 16 of their last 18 games (FIFA World Cup and Qualifiers). They have won 14 World Cup qualifiers in a row at home, which makes the task even tougher for the Balkan outfit.
  • Hans Vanaken has been directly involved in seven goals from three qualifiers played for Belgium.

Player to Watch

Eden Hazard

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It is a strange choice, but we may well get to see classic Eden Hazard at his best against Estonia. He has been waiting for game-time for a while now, and this matchup against relatively inferior opposition would be ideal for boosting his confidence and rediscovering his rhythm.

The former Chelsea winger has continued to struggle at the Santiago Bernabeu. This season, he has fallen down the pecking order behind Vinicius Junior under Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti. He has just made four starts which is a worrying trend for the Belgium skipper. There are reports of Hazard being increasingly frustrated with the situation. A good performance in the upcoming fixture could force Ancelotti to reconsider his position.

Prediction

Belgium 3-0 Estonia

It would be foolish to rule out Estonia in this tie, especially after their bright displays in recent months. One can expect them to put up a decent enough fight to cause an upset against the world’s No. 1 ranked side, but they face a wounded animal in Belgium, who will look to make amends for their semi-final exit in the UEFA Nations League.

Roberto Martinez will most likely rotate his injury-plagued squad, but the wealth of talent in the Red Devils’ ranks would be enough to frighten a much-depleted Estonia side. Hans Vanaken and Alexis Saelemaekers have been standouts for Belgium and will again be looking to put their stamp on the game. The superiority of Belgium will reflect on the final scoreline. The Hard Tackle predicts a convincing 3-0 for Martinez & co. to book their place in the Qatar World Cup 2022.

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