Between now and the summer it is inevitable that you and some pals will meet for a few drinks. Conversation, as it always does, will be diverted to football and eventually to the World Cup. Someone will back Brazil, another Argentina. Germany will be given some support as will France. Eventually someone will pipe-up and say something along the lines of “I’ll tell you who I think is a bit of a dark-horse…. Belgium”.
Belgium, given the huge abundance of players who ply their trade in Europe’s top leagues, are always going to be worth considering, and at a betting code enhanced 10/1 with most bookmakers, Roberto Martinez’ squad represent good value.
Belgium have talent across the field that would have most of the tournament salivating. Courtois in goals, has lost some of the glamour from his Atlético days, sliding down the totem-pole and seen as subpar to the likes of De Gea, Allison and Oblak, yet he remains a phenomenal goalkeeper.
In defence they may just have the best central-defensive pairing in the competition in the shape of Vertonghen and Alderweireld. Not only are the two exceptional players in their own right, by playing together domestically, they will have the telepathic understanding that few can hope to match. Depth is again key, being able to call upon the likes of Vermaelen and Kompany if injury strikes.
The full back position is seen by many as the nation’s one obvious weak spot, yet with Dani Alves’ understudy at PSG Munier on the right and Lazio’s resurgent Jordan Lukaku on the left, Belgium are stronger than most.
A midfield three of Dembele, Nainggolan and De Bruyne is a near perfect alloy of strength, power and intelligence. Augmented by the likes of Tielemans, Witsel and Dendoncker, Martinez has enough in reserve to go the distance.
In attack, Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku could be supplemented by Napoli’s absurdly brilliant Dries Mertens and Chelsea’s Eden Hazard. While an injury to any of this attacking triumvirate should spell disaster, a loss wouldn’t be some harmful as you’d imagine, not when the likes of Batshuayi, Carrasco, Chadli and Benteke can step into the void.
However, Belgium’s tournament will live and die on the performances of their star man – Eden Hazard. Undeniably brilliant in the Premier League, he is yet to perform on the biggest stage and prove, once and for all, that he is fit to be placed in the same bracket as the Messi’s and Ronaldo’s of this world. Now twenty-seven, this summer is Hazard’s last opportunity to flex his muscles whilst at the peak of his powers.
Belgium have the talent and strength in depth to have their influence felt in Russia, but what is still in doubt is their mental fortitude. Whether it is fair or not, a perception of the Belgian national team as weak willed, frail, and a bit spineless has allowed to grow.
Entering both the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 2016 European Championships as strong contenders, Belgian failed to progress beyond the quarter-final stage. Much of the blame was placed on the doorstep of their beleaguered coach at the time Marc Wilmots. Wilmots of course found himself out-thought on numerous occasions, and never appeared dexterous enough tactically to ever make a difference against the best of opponents, yet he was never entirely to blame.
Across the last two international tournament Belgium have played ten matches winning seven, losing three. What demonstrates Belgium’s fragility best is the fact they only managed two come from behind to win once, in the safety of the group stage in 2014 against Algeria.
When it comes to knock-out football, Belgium always look wracked with nerves. In 2014 they required extra-time to overcome a modest USA side, while against Argentina they proved too insipid to react to conceding an early Gonzalo Higuaín strike.
Many felt that this this was simply a learning curve for a nation that hadn’t featured in an international tournament for twelve years, yet two years later more neuroses surfaced. Losing to Italy in the group stage was a setback, but the limp manner in which they allowed themselves to be conquered by Wales was a disaster.
This summer offers Belgium the chance for a group of wonderfully talented players, all at or near to their peak, to shake of the ‘Dark Horse’ tag and finally take up the mantel of one of the game’s best. If the stars align a maiden World Cup title beckons.