Belgium’s new ‘golden generation’ can aim for the stars
The term “golden generation” is a dangerous label to give to a team – just ask England. Being a part of a golden generation is akin to having the metaphorical albatross slung around your neck; the pressure it brings can be crippling, paralysing one with fear; the expectation too much to handle.
Belgium have already had a golden generation; the class of 1986, who came 4th at the World Cup in Mexico, are considered to be the stick by which the current crop is to be measured.
The national team last qualified for a major tournament in 2002 and were unfortunate to be knocked out of the World Cup by the eventual champions, Brazil, in the last sixteen having seen a legitimate goal ruled out for a non-existent foul by the man who captained the side then and manages it now, Marc Wilmots. A decade on, he is looking to lead them back onto the biggest stage in international football.
After years of build-up, hype and expectation, this campaign is expected to be the campaign for Belgium to finally show the world that they mean business. That Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen has said that nothing less than maximum points from their two opening games – Wales away, which they won 2-0, and Croatia at home – is good enough shows the standards to which the Red Devils must now reach.
The quality that runs through the current Belgium squad is frightening and belies their FIFA ranking of 41st in the world, behind the likes of Libya, Mali and Algeria. A 4-2 victory over the Netherlands in a recent friendly suggests that the potential within the squad is finally being released into ability but the real tests lie ahead in the qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup.
They certainly have the personnel to help get them there.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, has a burgeoning reputation having kept 23 clean sheets for Atlético Madrid last season, helping them to win the Europa League in the process. His impressive development could soon see him challenging Petr Cech for the first-team spot at his parent club, Chelsea, and add to his three caps.
Stopping the opposition from getting to Courtois are two outstanding centre-halves in Vincent Kompany, the captain, and Thomas Vermaelen. Whilst Vermaelen is prone to venturing forward and leaving space in behind, Kompany will, more often than not, be their to clear up the mess. The pair seem to be a perfect match: Kompany is the more cautious of the two, an assured, rolls-royce type whilst Vermaelen is more of a roamer but equally comfortable on the ball.
It is the form of those two which means that Jan Vertonghen and Nicolas Lombaerts, two quality centre-backs in their own right, are forced to play out of position. Vertonghen will hope that joining Tottenham can help him to force his way into the centre of defence, should he out-perform either of his colleagues in the Premier League.
If choosing a back four was difficult for Wilmots then the competition for places really hots up in midfield, which is arguably where the bulk of the Belgian talent lies.
The former axis of the Standard Liege midfield, Steven Defour, Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini has been split up for a while at club level; all three have moved on to bigger and better things. Witsel, particularly, after his eye-watering €40m move to Zenit St Petersburg from Benfica. The volatile midfielder is perhaps best-known for his infamous horror tackle on Marcin Wasilewski, for which he received an eight-match ban but he seems to have settled into a domineering midfield role.
Meanwhile Defour, who was once courted by Manchester United, moved to Porto and has become a regular in the heart of the midfield. He performed admirably in the recent friendly with the Netherlands, succeeding in keeping Wesley Sneijder quiet for the evening.
It all gives Wilmots a huge headache with regards to selection, particularly with Fellaini being in imperious form for Everton at the start of the season with goals against Manchester United and Aston Villa in two commanding performances from the towering midfielder. In addition, Mousa Dembélé’s decision to solely be deployed as a central midfielder rather than as a forward has seen his game improve tenfold and earned him a move to Tottenham.
The real star of the team is Chelsea newcomer Eden Hazard. A player who impressed Zinedine Zidane so much that the Real Madrid icon said he would take the playmaker to the Bernabéu with his eyes closed, the 21-year old is seen as the current poster-boy of Belgian football. He has continued the form that saw him win the Ligue 1 Player of the Year award for two seasons in a row and made an immediate impact on the Premier League with a goal and six assists to his name after just three games. If he plays well, so do Belgium.
Another player who could be starring for one of Europe’s elite in the future is the fleet-footed PSV Eindhoven winger, Dries Mertens. His name has been mentioned with regards to Inter Milan and Bayern Munich in recent months and with good reason: 24 goals last season helped to cement a place in the national side and he notched his first international goal and set up two others in the friendly win over the Netherlands.
All of these flair players provide ammunition for the likes of Everton’s recent acquisition Kevin Mirallas, top scorer in last year’s Greek league with 20 goals and Christan Benteke of Aston Villa, one of the top scorers in the 2011/12 Belgian season.
The main hope, as he has been for the last four years, is still Romelu Lukaku. The powerful frontman, who has been likened to Didier Drogba, top-scored in his debut season in the Belgian league after an incredible few years in the Anderlecht youth team, where he scored 131 goals in just 93 games.
A move to Chelsea starved him of first-team football and, thus, hampered his development but the early signs of a loan to West Bromwich Albion indicate that an excellent player might yet be made of the man who is expected to spearhead the Belgian attack for the foreseeable future.
Some Belgians think that the happenings of 2002 still haunt the national side despite there being only two players left from that tournament – Daniel van Buyten and Timmy Simons. The current crop have an excellent chance to exorcise such ghosts and perhaps even eclipse the accomplishments of the Wilmots-skippered side.
Greece showed in 2004 that you do not necessarily have to be the best side to win an international tournament and, should the likes of Kompany, Mertens and Hazard collectively bring their club form to the international stage, there is no reason why Belgium cannot dream of not just making it to Brazil in 2014 but having a real impact upon that tournament and beyond.