Updated: Jun 18, 2018
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For a country of 11 million to have produced this pool of talent at one stage is simply spectacular. Belgium brought one of the most talented teams in the world to Brasil in 2014, and most of these characters are back and fully in their prime. Perhaps the biggest change is the coach; after two competitions under the Belgian playing legend, Marc Wilmots--who seems invented to prove the theory that great players don't make great coaches-- they have turned to Roberto Martinez, the affable, attacking-oriented Spaniard, and their qualifications have gone swimmingly. Wilmots never seemed to squeeze the most out of this excellent group, for whom an upbeat tempo seems critical.
Starting at keeper is the imposing Thibault Courtois, a quick giant who can spread incredibly wide (many will remember that he brilliantly snuffed out a spectacular free kick play that should have given the U.S. an equalizer in 2014). While he's had a few off games this year, he belongs in the world's elite class, along with De Gea, Neuer, and Buffon at this point. Maybe at the bottom of that group but when he's hot no one can cut more of the angle, and I'd hate to go to PK's against him. I rate him quite highly.
Belgium has a great leader in Vincent Kompany, though he's one of the few stars here that's clearly past his athletic prime and injury prone, respectively. If fit, he's the perfect center for a back three with the Jan Vertonghen-Toby Alderweireld Spurs pairing; if not, Celtic's Dedrick Boyata likely drops in between. The Spurs offer an ongoing partnership, one that is going to be rare in this Cup, and a real live left-footed centerback, which makes a big difference in my opinion. I've never been a huge Vertonghen fan--maybe because he's such a sourpuss-- but he's won me over the past two years with consistency, and Alderweireld is excellent, able to play outside back but plenty muscular for the center. Any injury troubles could bring Laurent Ciman into the squad, from the U.S.'s MLS; he's the first MLS player to simultaneously play for a top flight national side, a big deal for a little but improving league. Outside back is somewhat suspect (they played four centerbacks last Cup, an idea that Wilmots thought wise); doubters may remember that the replacement outside backs did not perform well. This year brings PSG's Meunier, a big lad with good wheels, and Carrasco, both of whom are more at home attacking than defending.
They might get away with it if they get quality midfield cover, and in Axel Witsel they have an elegant #6. In my mind, he'd be paired with Spurs' Moussa Dembele, the velcro-touch lefty with a bulldog's mentality--it's nearly impossible to get the ball off of him. Absent--and controversially so--is the human hammerhead Radja Nainggolan, Roma's mohawked enforcer. Apparently he smoked too many cigarettes for Martinez's liking. I'm sorry not to see him included; if things go well, then Martinez was genius to see that sometimes harmony is more important than talent, but if not Nainggolan's name will be omnipresent. Apparently he'll bring De Bruyne back into a deeper regista role, Pirlo-on-steroids. That's a big wildcard move and it could go either way; I wouldn't bet against it. Belgium's one of those sides where in the past it's always felt like internal grudges lurked just beneath the surface (case in point: Courtois is suing Wilmots. I didn't make that up), so we'll see how this goes.
If either middie runs into trouble, we get Fellaini, a far cry off in technical terms but one who will undoubtedly factor into aerial duals. As an aside, this is the scariest team in the air, with Lukaku, the three centerbacks, and possibly Fellaini coming forward, and probably the best in the world in De Bruyne to deliver the balls.
What gets everyone excited about Belgium is the attacking engines of Hazard and De Bruyne. Hazard seems very mentally settled, has been named team captain despite Kompany's presence, and is still capable of creating a goal out of nothing, while no one picks out runners with the precision of De Bruyne. When I first saw him, all I could think of was how much he looked like Todd from "Breaking Bad," and indeed he's a baby faced assassin. He also has a lethal outside shot with either foot, and along with Neymar and Salah, my bet for goal of the tournament.
Big Rom Lukaku, as Tim Howard likes to call his former Everton teammate, is a hulking old-fashioned target man who will raise the anxiety levels of any centerback pair. If he gets position on them for an airball or a sealed entry pass, they're out of the play. The chemistry between him and the attacking mids will probably dictate how far Belgium goes. However, Napoli's Dries Mertens is also up front on the wing, a rare combination of speed merchant and poacher, and the perfect player to have playing alongside Lukaku. He reminds me of former Dutch and Arsenal star Marc Overmars. Expect to see lots of movement among the three working off the Lukaku pivot. Fun Fact: Lukaku speaks Flemish, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and English, which makes up for the fact that he cuts his beautiful locks.
There's decent offensive firepower off the bench, but a frightening lack of it in the back (the wonderfully bold but wholly ricketty Thomas Vermaelen is a sub, and the former Arsenal skipper could go down in any training session, unfortunately). This lack of balance could prove catastrophic.
So, this is it for this squad, their peak Golden Generation moment. If not for the looming Brazil matchup that's likely to transpire, I'd rate them as finalists. I think if they win, it will be through brilliant attacks orchestrated out of the midfield along with a headed goal and a few Courtois magic tricks. If they lose, it could well be a sour affair. It would be a lot more fun to see them flourish, because it could be football at its most glorious.