Can Belgium’s Golden Generation actually win the World Cup?

Sam Pilger looks at The Red Devils’ hopes of winning in Russia and feels Robert Martinez’s men have a fair shot at winning it all…

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The Belgian side set to compete in the World Cup in Russia this summer could be mistaken for a pretty decent Premier League All-Star XI.

At least seven of the players expected to start for Belgium in their opening World Cup game against Panama next Monday night in Sochi would comfortably win a place in a team made up of the Premier League’s best players.  

In goal, this ridiculously well stocked Belgian side can boast Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois, winner of two Premier League titles, who sits behind a three-man defence of Tottenham’s commanding pair of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, and Manchester City’s title-winning captain Vincent Kompany.

In the centre of midfield Belgium have Kevin De Bruyne, the inspiration behind Manchester City’s record-breaking title win last season, whose task is to feed passes through to Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku.

 

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The only players that do not play their club football in England are the supreme talents of Yannick Carrasco and Alex Witsel, one of Serie A’s best players Dries Mertens, who scored 22 goals for Napoli last season, and Thomas Meunier, who plays alongside Neymar for French champions Paris Saint-Germain.

This is a team so good that Mousa Dembele, such a dominant presence in the Premier League with Tottenham, has to make do with a place on the bench, and AS Roma’s Radja Nainggola is at home, and didn’t even make the squad.

Belgium stormed through qualifying, winning nine of their ten games to finish top of their group, only dropping points in a draw to runners-up Greece, as they routinely tore apart every other team, scoring 43 goals and conceding only 6.

This is Belgium’s much vaunted ‘Golden Generation’, whose squad is now so talented they can’t possibly hide behind the role of plucky outsiders any longer, and currently ranked third in the world, they have to be seen as one of the real favourites to win the World Cup.

These players have been threatening to do something big in recent years, reaching the quarter-finals of both the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016, but there is now increasing confidence they can go all the way in Russia.

 

This is their chance to win the World Cup, for a small country of just 11.5 million people cannot be expected to have a national team this good again for a long time.

And so it remains a curiosity that Belgium handed this historic opportunity to Roberto Martinez, a Spaniard with no experience of international football, and only a solid record in the Premier League with Wigan and Everton.

Since September 2016, Martinez has guided Belgium through a rather unchallenging qualifying group, but still doubts remain about whether he can navigate his way through a tournament against the world’s best.

Martinez has proved wedded to playing a 3-4-3 formation, which though successful against weaker teams, might leave them vulnerable when they come up against more formidable opposition in the latter stages of the World Cup.

The concern with this formation is that Belgian’s midfield can be overrun, which was highlighted by Kevin De Bruyne when Belgium drew 3-3 with Mexico in a friendly in Brussels last November. “They pushed our wing-backs back and we were swimming in midfield it was always seven against five.”

 

“As long as there is no good tactical system for the team, we are going to face difficulties against countries like Mexico. It’s a pity that we have not yet found a solution,” added De Bruyne, in a rather surprising rebuke to Martinez.

The nagging worry for the Belgium manager is on the two occasions they have played a team from the world’s top six nations during his reign they haven’t impressed, losing 2-0 to Spain in his opening game in September 2016, and just last week drawing 0-0 with Portugal in a World Cup warm-up match.

But every nation has their glitches to address, and Belgium know if they realise their potential in Russia they can triumph, for they boast a calm assurance in defence, and above all, a genuinely world-class attack.

Belgium boast not one, but two players in Hazard and De Bruyne with the ability to inspire a team to the World Cup, and win the player of the tournament award.

Earlier this year, I spoke with several of De Bruyne’s former coaches and players, who said he had spent his entire career building towards this World Cup.

De Bruyne is now 26, and believes this is his moment to show he is one of the world’s best players, deserving to be mentioned alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, and possibly snatch the Ballon d’Or from the pair later this year.

Hazard too has had his name mentioned with this illustrious pair, once by his former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, but has yet to impose himself on the Champions League or an international tournament. This is his chance.

In front of this pair is Romelu Lukaku, coming off a brilliant debut season at Manchester United, which saw him score 27 goals.

A record of 34 international goals also proves that if you give him a chance at this level, he will score.

If together both De Bruyne and Hazard seize their moment, Belgium could find themselves in the final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 15.

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