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Hrishi Anand has a look at Belgium’s chances in the upcoming European Championships.
The Euros are always the place for fast paced, exciting football. Gunning for the ultimate European crown, national teams find themselves with an opportunity to pit themselves against the very best. Marc Wilmots and his Belgian Red Devils will definitely be looking to establish themselves as one of Europe’s best national teams.
Trophies and participation in major tournaments has been hard to come by for Les Diables Rouges in recent years. After the 2002 World Cup, the team was weakened with the loss of veterans and coach Waseige. Belgium failed to qualify for five consecutive major finals between 2004 and 2012 and went through an equal number of head coaches. Finally in 2012, only when Marc Wilmots took over, did the Belgians finally find some managerial stability.
In recent years Belgium have found themselves in a situation where they are able to challenge bigger teams like Germany and Spain. The lack of experience however is their Achilles heel as very few of their players have had the experience of playing in major tournaments. The 2014 World Cup was a similar case. The Belgians were tipped to top their group consisting of weaker teams like Algeria and Russia. They did so however unconvincingly with only 4 goals scored in the group stage and scrappy wins against the likes of South Korea. They were heavily criticized for adopting a slow build-up style and playing football that was not easy on the eye. Much more was expected from a team with stars like Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne. The underwhelming group stage was followed by yet another unconvincing win against the USA in extra time (however it was Tim Howard who kept the Americans in the game) . Pitted against Argentina in the quarter finals, there was a feeling that Belgium’s World Cup run would be cut short by the tournament favorites. The Belgians returned home after a 1-0 loss but there was reason to be optimistic. This was the first World Cup for most of their players and with a young squad, there was always room for improvement
The Euro qualifiers were a dream for Belgium and their excellent performances resulted in being ranked the number 1 team in the world for a short while. It was however a huge step in the right direction as Belgium had played their qualifiers with a strong emphasis on a rock solid defense that conceded only 5 goals in 10 games and a front line that scored 24 in as many games. They topped their group convincingly and gave the fans a reason to believe that this is their big chance.
They have a world class keeper in Thibaut Courtois and a decent back up in Simon Mignolet. While goalkeeping depth is not a priority, it is an important area where Belgium have no issues.
The Belgian defense is one of the best in the world. They have a Premier League winner and excellent leader in captain Vincent Kompany who marshalls the entire back four with ease. While Thomas Vermaelen remains an injury prone player, he still is a Champions league winner who plays for Barcelona. The duo of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen have formed an excellent partnership for Tottenham this season and have a good understanding between each other. All the Belgian defenders are also a serious threat from set pieces with their tall and strong physiques. The only issue with the Belgian defense is the lack of pace which was exposed in the World Cup by speedsters like Feghouli and Dempsey. This weakness is however balanced by Marc Wilmot’s tactics which ensure that the Belgians do not let players run behind them or the opposition play intricate balls through the heart of the defense.
Belgium’s biggest asset is their adaptable and technically strong midfield. Boasting of tricksters like Eden Hazard, midfield destroyers like Radja Nainggolan and Axel Witsel, speedsters like Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas, and players with the ability to find their teammates anywhere on the pitch like Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium really do have a midfield with the ability to run any opposition ragged. Radja Nainggolan and Axel Witsel are two world class destroyers capable of breaking up play and add a physical element to the Belgian line-up. Nainggolan is known for his crunching tackles and Witsel for his positioning and interceptions. The two wide men that are De Bruyne and Hazard boast of the ability to run around any defender and split a defense at will. Hazard, the PFA player of the year may be currently out of form but all he needs is a couple of good performances to breathe the life back into his football. De Bruyne on the other hand is replicating his performances for Wolfsburg at Manchester City and appears to be really enjoying his football in the Premier League. These two are absolutely vital for Belgium’s hopes of progressing in the Euros.
Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke. A defender’s nightmare. Strong, fast and having excellent movement off the ball, the strike duo is an exciting prospect to watch. Lukaku has been in red hot form in the Premier League this season with 15 goals in 21 appearances. Extremely strong with a good amount of pace, Lukaku is a threat anywhere 30 yards from the opponent’s goal. His penchant for cutting in from the right and blasting a screamer into the top corner is another asset to his game. He also has the ability to hold up play for Hazard and De Bruyne to work their magic. Benteke has been underwhelming this season following a move to Liverpool but he complements Lukaku’s style of play with a good amount of physicality and movement.
In conclusion, Belgium definitely have the capability to make an impact in Euro 2016. They have a well- balanced squad and charismatic players like Eden Hazard. They have to however improve on their mentality which is a job for coach Marc Wilmots. A semi-final spot should be the bare minimum objective for the Red Devils and it may even be their best chance to win the Euros for a while.
Written by Hrishi Anand