2014 World Cup Group H team previews: Belgium
A few years ago the notion of Belgium as fifth favourites to win a World Cup ahead of France, Italy and England would have seemed ludicrous even to the country’s most ardent supporters.
Just making the World Cup finals proved beyond the “Red Devils” in 2006 and 2010, their last appearance coming back in 2002 when they lost to eventual winners Brazil in the last 16.
Yet here they are, bags packed for Brazil with ‘dark horses’ firmly stamped on their passports and yet only the hosts, Argentina, Germany and Spain are above them in pundits’ lists.
Coach Marc Wilmots’ talented squad sailed through their qualifying group unbeaten, barely putting a foot wrong against Croatia, Serbia and Scotland.
They sealed their berth to Brazil with a game to spare in Zagreb, Romelu Lukaku’s double doing the damage. They start in Group H against Algeria, Russia and South Korea.
Star players like Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Wolfsburg’s Kevin de Bruyne, Lukaku (loaned by Chelsea to Everton), Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany and Lukaku’s Everton teammate Kevin Mirallas ply their trade in Europe’s big leagues.
And that presence beyond Belgium’s borders according to veteran central defender Daniel van Buyten is one of the reasons for Belgium’s footballing renaissance.
“We’ve got a good generation of players, many of whom ply their trade abroad and are playing regularly in international competitions,” said Van Buyten, who plays for German champions Bayern Munich.
“That’s made us a lot stronger,” the decorated defender, only the second Belgian to win the Champions League, told fifa.com.
“All the young players are suddenly playing abroad. They all used to play in Belgium. They were still good players, but only as good as the Belgian league.”
Belgium’s best run in a World Cup so far saw them reach the 1986 semi-finals in Mexico where they met their match in a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina.
Van Buyten said that Group H is “winnable.”
If they do top their group, Belgium could avoid Germany in the last 16, a major incentive if ever there was one.
Van Buyten revealed how the shift in attitude to Belgium by his German teammates at Bayern underscored his country’s dramatic recent progress.
“It’s great that such a big football nation knows a match against Belgium isn’t going to be easy.”
Belgium’s former boss Georges Leekens believes Hazard will shine on the World Cup stage, his move from Lille to Chelsea, coached by Jose Mourinho, taking his game to another level.
“The Chelsea manager has not only demanded Hazard scores more goals and produces more assists, but also that he works hard defensively and takes responsibility,” Leekens told London’s Evening Standard.
“The World Cup is the right moment to show himself, he will be excellent. His performances against the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool have shown he is ready for the biggest teams in the World Cup.
“He has the talent to be considered on the same level as Ronaldo and Messi – after the World Cup, maybe people will stop comparing him to those players and appreciate him for the player he has become.”
Five to watch:
Thibaut Courtois, goalkeeper (Atletico Madrid); Age 22; 15 caps. Has played three seasons in La Liga on loan from Chelsea, winning Europa Cup in 2012 and being named league’s best goalkeeper for the 2012/2013 season. Clear No 1 for Belgium.
Vincent Kompany, centre-back (Manchester City); Age 28; 57 caps. Born in Brussels of Congolese father and Belgian mother, Belgium’s captain has played for his country since he was 17. Solid and committed in defence, he is comfortable bringing ball forward and useful with his head at corners. Won Premier League Player of the Season in 2011/2012. Has been hit by variety of injuries.
Eden Hazard, midfielder (Chelsea); Age 23, 43 caps. Attacking midfielder was twice voted the Ligue 1’s best player at Lille before moving to Chelsea. Master at creating chances and dribbling past defenders, Hazard is starting to reproduce club form for national side.
Kevin De Bruyne, midfielder (Wolfsburg); Age 22, 20 caps. Belgium’s top scorer in World Cup qualifying and arguably their best player. Has had patchy season, failing to make mark at Chelsea and transferred to Wolfsburg. Fast on wing and should link up well with Belgium’s strikers.
Romelu Lukaku, striker (Everton); Age 21; 27 caps. Strong, tall and fast, Lukaku made professional debut at 16 while at school. Destroyed Croatia in qualifier that booked Belgium’s ticket to Brazil. Like De Bruyne, the once dreadlocked striker has failed to establish himself at Chelsea, but had good loan spells at West Bromwich Albion and now Everton.
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Published: May 29, 2014 04:00 AM