Talented Belgium on the rise
SEPT 11 — Out of all tonight’s World Cup qualification matches in Europe, one of the most intriguing is the Group A meeting between Belgium and Croatia in Brussels.
Croatia were excellent at the European Championships in the summer – thrashing Ireland, drawing with Italy and nearly holding Spain – and could consider themselves unfortunate to have been eliminated from a tough group that contained both eventual finalists.
They are now under the leadership of a new coach, Igor Stimac, after the charismatic Slaven Bilic decided to end his six-year reign and join Lokomotiv Moscow, but they still possess plenty of high-quality players in Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivica Olic, amongst others.
However, the team I’m most interested in seeing is Belgium. I’m not going to get carried away and claim they’re going to win the World Cup in 2014, but they could easily be capable of qualifying for their first major tournament in 12 years and then advancing into the knockout stages in Brazil.
They certainly seem to have the players. With young but talented goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois – currently on loan at Atletico Madrid from Chelsea – behind a defence containing Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, new Tottenham signing Jan Vertonghen and reliable Arsenal man Thomas Vermaelen, they should be able to keep plenty of clean sheets.
The midfield is Belgium’s greatest strength, with a sprinkling of Europe’s most coveted talent amongst their ranks. The biggest star is Eden Hazard, who was the best player in France during his time with Lille and has made an extremely impressive start to his Chelsea career after this summer’s £32 million (RM159 million) transfer to Stamford Bridge.
A similarly huge fee was splashed out on another of Belgium’s midfielders, the dynamic and big-haired Axel Witsel, who was the subject of a €40m deadline day move from Porto to Russian champions Zenit St Petersburg a fortnight ago.
Then there’s Marouane Fellaini, the towering Everton midfielder whose remarkable afro hairstyle is a thing of beauty that makes Witsel’s effort look like a small mothball.
More important than the hair is the fact that Fellaini is a terrific all-round midfielder – strong in the tackle, dominant in the air and dangerous in the penalty area, as Manchester United discovered to their cost last month when he scored the winning goal when the teams met at Goodison Park. It would be no surprise if Fellaini attracts serious interest from some of Europe's biggest clubs when the transfer window opens in January.
That’s not all, because Belgium’s midfield also contains the canny Porto passmaster Steven Defour, versatile Tottenham new arrival Moussa Dembele, and penetration from wide areas courtesy of free-scoring PSV star Dries Mertens and Werder Bremen loanee from Chelsea Kevin De Bruyne.
That’s already quite a cast list, but Belgium’s biggest asset of them all could well prove to be teenage striker Romelu Lukaku, who has made a promising start to his loan spell at West Bromwich Albion from Chelsea, including a goal on his debut against Liverpool (what is it with all these Chelsea loanees, incidentally? Are the Blues trying to becoming a nursery club for the Belgian national team?!).
I first saw Lukaku nearly three years ago, when he was already a regular starter for Anderlecht at the age of 16, having made his first team debut just 11 days after his 16th birthday. The thing that immediately struck me about the striker was his sheer size – even at such a tender age he already possessed the physique of Didier Drobga, with whom ongoing comparisons would prove to be inevitable.
Lukaku finished the 2009/10 season with 15 goals in just 21 starts, making him the highest scoring goalscorer in Belgium despite only celebrating his 17th birthday a few days before the end of the season. Unsurprisingly, he immediately became hot property and was linked with practically every big club in Europe before eventually joining (guess who?) Chelsea just over a year ago.
His first season at Stamford Bridge was a disappointment as he was kept out of the team by Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres, and failed to get his name on the scoresheet during his limited playing time.
Somewhat surprisingly considering the departure of Drogba and the continuing patchy form of Torres, the Blues have now allowed the 19-year-old to join West Brom for the season, and it’s a decision they may live to regret because he has all the tools to become a top-class performer.
In addition to the aforementioned physical attributes, Lukaku is fast, good in the air and, most importantly for a striker, a calm and accomplished finisher. If he continues to develop his first touch and decision-making abilities, Belgium will have one heck of a striker on their hands to finish off the moves started by their talented midfield.
Lukaku might be an exceptionally early developer, but another of Belgium’s assets is the age of their squad. All the key players are in their mid or early-twenties (Kompany is 26, Fellaini 24, Witsel 23 and Hazard 21), meaning that they should be in the prime of their careers in the next few years.
So everything seems to be in place for Belgium to enjoy a successful qualifying campaign – and then much more.
The task for their manager, the former international striker Marc Wilmots, is to create a cohesive unit out of his multi-skilled group of players. If he is able to instil a coherent and consistent philosophy, they could become a force to be reckoned with.
Friday's 2-0 win over mediocre Wales was a good start, but tonight's meeting with Croatia will be a much bigger test. It could be quite a game.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.