Euro 2016: Forever underachievers, Belgium need to break out and believe in themselves
Belgium are accompanied by Italy, Sweden and Republic of Ireland in Group E, none of which will be a pushover team. But Belgium's biggest hurdle will be Belgium themselves.
Throughout history, there have been many teams in international football who have courted greatness, who have leaned in, closed their eyes, and taken a good whiff of success laid decorated on the plate, but never tasted it. Netherlands of the 1970s, still considered as one of the greatest group of men to have ever played the beautiful game, couldn't win the World Cup, despite making it to back-to-back finals in '74 and '78. Spain, before they unleashed an otherworldly era of domination, sandwiching the 2010 World Cup with 2008 and 2012 European Championships, were the perennial prodigies who never came of age. A fourth place finish in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil was their best show before finally bringing home the golden trophy.
Belgium belongs to that club of talented also-rans. Paul Van Himst's Belgium finished third at the 1972 Euros. But even Belgium's greatest footballer and top goalscorer couldn't take them all the way. In 1980s, Belgium's golden generation which included the likes of Jan Ceulemans, Nico Claesen and Ezo Scifo, took the country as close as ever to its first major silverware in Euro 1980 and 1986 World Cup.
But the Red Devils lost to West Germany in the Euro final in '80, and to Diego Maradona's Argentina in the '86 World Cup semi-final. As the world showered adulation on the incomparable Maradona and the prolific Gary Lineker for their heroics in Mexico, Belgium, in as good a shape as it could it ever be, had yet again failed at the final hurdle.
With a history of failing at the cusp of history, Belgium has its second golden generation at its disposal. And it doesn't get more 'golden' than this. Just take a look at their current crop of players: Thibaut Courtois, Simon Mignolet, Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, Yannick Carrasco, Kevin De Bruyne, Radja Nainggolan, Eden Hazard, Mousa Dembele, Dries Mertens, Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke.
Now that is a world-beating squad. That is probably the best team in the world on paper. Each of those players is a star for his respective club. In fact, if you combine the transfer value of their 23-man squad, Belgium is the costliest team in the Euro 2016 with a combined value of about £319 million. However, coach Marc Wilmots is faced with a slight problem; he can't employ his best XI in the Euro 2016. Belgium, with many of its big names playing in the grueling Premier League, are beset with injuries, mostly to its defensive third.
The Red Devils, most crucially, will be missing the 'devil-in-charge' and Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany. Now Kompany is not just one the best centre-backs in the Premier League (which makes him one of the best centre-backs in the world), he is also a fine leader of men on the field. He is the beast in the back four, an ever-hounding physical presence that almost scares the opposition strikers off-course. He also has an aerial threat in dead ball situations, an alternate outlet for goals when everything fails. Dogged by injuries throughout City's Premier League campaign, Kompany limped out ten minutes into the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid with a groin problem and failed to recover in time to lead his country in the European Championships. His absence is a huge blow for Belgium, and it leaves a hole that cannot be filled.
Also present in the injury list are veteran centre-back Nicolas Lombaerts, and defenders Dedryck Boyata and Björn Engels. When Wilmots announced the squad for the tournament, he dabbled in some dark humour over his injury woes. "I thought about killing myself yesterday,” he said before clarifying that he was only “joking”.
The good news though, is that Belgium has exceptional squad depth. Even with the injuries, Belgium look an all-round strong team. With one of world's best goalkeepers Courtois, top-class defenders in Vertonghen and Alderweireld, one of the best midfield line-ups in the competition in Hazard, De Bruyne, and Nainggolan, and an in-form Lukaku — as good a striker as any in Europe, Belgium have their bases covered.
Wilmots had earlier employed Vertonghen and Alderweireld at full-back positions, with Kompany and Lombaerts fulfilling the centre-back duties. But with injuries to the preferred pair, and the Vertonghen-Alderweireld centre-back combination bearing fruits for Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League season, the choice is really quite easy for Wilmots.
With Vertonghen and Alderweireld commanding the centre of defence, Tottenham emerged as one of the two best defensive sides in England, the other unsurprisingly being Louis van Gaal's Manchester United. Spurs conceded 35 goals in the season, joint lowest with United. The two Belgians proved to be a settled and reliable pair for Spurs, who over the last few years, have had tinker-times in the position.
A third Belgian in the North London club, who played just ahead of the first two, has been equally crucial in maintaining that defensive record. Dembele, aided ably by England's very own Eric Dier, was a rock in the defensive midfield for Spurs, thus allowing the attacking midfield trio of Christian Erickson, Dele Alli, and Erik Lamela to put on their dancing shoes. But it's Roma's technical central midfielder Nainggolan who has wooed Wilmots, and will be one of the first names on the squad sheet. The Chelsea target has been an undisputed starter in Euro qualifiers, and provides a much more balanced central midfield presence.
And when it comes to the Belgian attacking midfield, it is safe to say that the Red Devils are in, well, safe hands. De Bruyne has enjoyed a magical first season at City, netting in 16 goals and assisting a dozen more in all competitions, despite on-and-off injury troubles. He also led the list for goalscoring chances created in Euro 2016 qualifiers with 37.
Hazard, on the other hand, had a horror of a season with Chelsea. But the Belgian number 10 has been more than decent in a Red Devil's shirt, he even scored in Belgium's last friendly ahead of the Euros, a 3-2 win against Norway. And he found some of his 2014-15 form for Chelsea towards the tail-end of the season. But Wilmots would be hoping that both stay fit for the entirety of the competition. De Bruyne (knee) and Hazard (hip) have had niggling injury problems in a long and hard Premier League season. Having both of them completely fit and operating at their 100 per cent will be crucial.
Which brings us to the forwards. Lukaku and Benteke have both plied their trade at Merseyside clubs this season and the results couldn't be far apart. Where Lukaku has scored 25 goals in all competitions for Everton, Benteke pales in comparison with his 11 for Liverpool. The Everton man looks to be the first choice forward for the team, and he even scored in the pre-Euro friendly against Norway. Wilmots would still be happy with the options he has up front.
Assuming they are not hit by further injuries, Belgium's starting XI seems settled. Courtois will invariably start between the sticks, with Jason Denayer as right back, Alderweireld-Vertonghen in the centre, and Romelu's younger brother, Jordan Lukaku, in the left-back position. Wilmots will favour Witsel above Fellaini (who wouldn't?) to partner Nainggolan in the defensive midfield, while Hazard (left), De Bruyne (centre) and Mertens (right) should form the attacking fork, with Lukaku the cherry pinned at the top.
Belgium are accompanied by Italy, Sweden and Republic of Ireland in Group E, none of which will be a pushover team. But Belgium's biggest hurdle will be Belgium themselves. Forever underachievers, they need to break out of their shell. Playing their first World Cup since 2002 Korea-Japan, Belgium reached the quarter-finals in 2014 World Cup in Brazil, only to be beaten by Argentina by a solitary goal.
Now playing their first Euros since the time they co-hosted it in 2000, Belgium need to believe in their abilities. They need to understand within themselves that they just as good as the best team in the competition, maybe even better.
They need to do what Spain did and jump the gulf that separates good teams from great teams. Great teams first win the game in their minds, and then follow it up on the football field. That's what separates Germany, Italy, France, Spain from the rest. They can squeeze out those big wins in those big games, even if they were second best on the day. If Belgium can do that, they should definitely reach the business end of the competition, and there is no reason why they can't beat the giants of Europe and go all the way.
Belgium is the top ranked team in the Euro 2016. It's time they start acting like one too.
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