Could Belgium have an outside chance of winning the 2014 World Cup in Brazil? The idea might seem strange to anyone who thinks of Belgium as a nation with no recent success and a league suffering from low budgets and poor stadiums. But no! A look at the current squad shows there is talent to spare: Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, Eden Hazard, Steven Defour, Axel Witsel, Jan Vertonghen, Arsenal's Thomas Vermaelen, Moussa Démbéle; the list is endless. This sudden blossoming of talent though is more by accident than design.
Sadly, there is no Belgian blueprint. Vermaelen, Vertonghen, Démbéle, Ajax’s Toby Alderweireld, and PSV’s Dries Mertens all came to prominence in the Netherlands; Hazard was sent to France to learn his trade by his father, who also sent his brother Thorgan (18) to Lens for the same reason. But let’s forget that - the scene is set for Belgium to become one of Europe’s top nations. Indeed, USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann recently said that Belgium had its best team for a couple of decades.
But there’s a caveat. A look at the Euro 2012 qualifying tables paints a different picture. Belgium will need a miracle to finish second in their group and qualify for the playoffs. They need to win in Germany and hope that Turkey lose at home to the same team. The truth is that their results to-date have not reflected the quality in the squad. After the recent draw with Azerbaijan, the media called for coach Georges Leekens to be fired. That’s a typical reaction and it would be wise to examine issues within the squad itself.
USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann recently said that Belgium had its best team for a couple of decades.
First off, the team is – as expected - young. Even with Nuremburg’s veteran midfielder Timmy Simons starting the match in Azerbaijan, the average age of the team was 23. That shows a lack of experience at the highest level. The squad is also unbalanced. There is a dearth of top-class full backs in Belgium as opposed to central defence where there is an abundance of quality and experienced performers: Man City's Kompany, Vertonghen, Arsenal's Vermaelen, Lombaerts, Van Buyten and Alderweireld all play in central defence at some of the top clubs in Europe.
Perhaps due to players being selected out of position – central defenders have filled both full back positions in nearly all of the qualifying games - Belgium have often conceded crucial goals late in the game: Turkey 78th minute, Azerbaijan 86th and Austria in the 93rd.
Furthermore, many players have been thinking of lucrative transfers away from the Jupiler League. In the event, Romelu Lukaku joined Chelsea, Witsel went to Benfica and Defour found himself at Porto. Jelle Vossen stayed at Genk despite many rumours and, remarkably, Marvin Ogunjimi is still with the Belgian champions as the paperwork concerning his move to Mallorca arrived at FIFA headquarters seven minutes too late. As a postscript, Vossen recently said it would soon be his turn to move away from the Jupiler League.
The end result was that the Belgium team that played in Azerbaijan consisted of 11 players who all earn their living away from the Jupiler League. In this regard they are similar to the Dutch neighbours, currently top of the world rankings. Maybe it’s just a matter of time before Belgium climbs the rankings, as the Dutch players have had more time to get used to the bigger leagues and have also had three settled years under Bert van Marijk. He does not have a lot more international experience than Leekens, but Belgium’s coach is not everyone’s cup of tea. And, being Flemish, he is always going to get some stick from the southern half of the country. In truth, Leekens has often failed to make substitutions when they could have freshened up the team. The recent game in Azerbaijan was a case in point and the majority of his changes in the qualifiers have been made after the 75th minute. On the other side of the balance sheet, injuries and suspensions have upset squad selections. Leekens has frequently had to do without Defour, Fellaini and Vermaelen due to long-term injuries.
Then there is the coach’s relationship with Eden Hazard, which has made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Initially, Leekens left Hazard out of the team as he preferred players who were more willing to help out in defence. Then when Hazard was brought back into the fold in the crucial match with Turkey, Leekens replaced him after an hour by the energetic Mertens; Hazard immediately got changed and was seen enjoying a hamburger with friends before the match had finished. More seriously, someone at the Belgian FA took the trouble to do a bit of lip-reading and decided that Hazard had insulted Leekens and assistant Marc Wilmots as he was substituted. The end result was a three match ban for Hazard, subsequently reduced to one game.
By the time, the next World Cup comes around, that average age should be up to a more manageable 26. Kompany, Witsel, Hazard, Mertens, Vertonghen and co. should be at their peak.
Whatever the facts, ‘Hazardgate’ has often taken the spotlight away from the team and has caused criticism of the coach (and player) when it was least needed. As for tactics, Leekens has frequently played with a lone striker (in a 4-3-3 formation); one of Lukaku, Vossen or Ogunjimi. Evidence has shown though, that Lukaku - still an unproven teenager - never looked totally comfortable in this role for Anderlecht, while Vossen and Ogunjimi have usually played in tandem at Genk. In the two matches when Leekens opted to start with two strikers, Belgium scored a total of six goals (admittedly conceding five).
The current squad has frequently been referred to as the “Golden Generation”, despite the fact that they have won nothing and never qualified for a major tournament. Some players have undoubtedly believed the hype. With an average age of 23, that should not come as a great surprise.
By the time, the next World Cup comes around, that average age should be up to a more manageable 26. Kompany, Witsel, Hazard, Mertens, Vertonghen and co. should be at their peak. It is to be hoped that Chelsea’s gamble with Lukaku pays off as it is not obvious where the goals will come from. There is always a joker in the pack of course and by 2014, Anderlecht’s Charly Musonda Junior will be 18. Described by Jan Boskamp, the former Stoke and Anderlecht boss as a mixture of Xavi and Iniesta, the boy could be the icing on the cake. With the right coach - and the jury is still out on Leekens – and a couple of decent full-backs, Belgium could even emulate their predecessors of 1986 and reach the World Cup semi finals. In which case, there will be much dancing in Brussels’ Grand Place, Kompany will be carried shoulder-high and the country will have been reunited once again.
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