Belgium is the latest country to witness a golden generation of players. Their current contingency of stars have the right amount of maturity, experience and skill to finally shine at a major international competition.
Prior to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the Red Devils went through a barren spell in the international scene.
Their last notable appearance was at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
Then managed by national legend Marc Wilmots, the side were unlucky in 2014 to go out to Argentina four years earlier. Gonzalo Higuain scored the only goal of the match to send the European dark horses out of the competition at the quarter-final stage.
However, before the exit, the players showed great promise. Producing a stellar performance against the United States in the round of 16, an incredible showing of super-heroic proportions from Tim Howard kept the score down to just 2-0. The performance from the Belgians provided a glimmer of what they could possibly achieve.
In Euro 2016, the team suffered a shock 3-1 defeat to tournament surprise package Wales following a thumping 4-0 victory over Hungary in the previous round.
Once again, there was much promise. Not the experience or mentality required to carry the nation into the final stages of a major competition.
The appointment of Roberto Martinez as manager and Arsenal legend Thierry Henry as assistant coach has caused people to believe that this side can progress further this time around.
Notable players such as Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois have all gained more maturity and experience. They have continuously performed at the highest level for their respective clubs.
A combination of all these factors might just be the right recipe for success. Martinez faced an impossible task choosing his final roster. For now, we can take a deeper dive on how they will line up, for more or less the majority of the tournament.
The front three
Assuming that the former Everton boss is looking to deploy a 5-2-3 shape during the World Cup as he did during the qualifiers, there is only one striker position up for grabs.
This spot is most likely going to be handed to Manchester United’s Lukaku. Other contenders include Michy Batshuayi, Divock Origi and Christian Benteke.
Out of these three, Batshuayi has been the best performer especially after the 24-year-old’s loan spell at Dortmund.
Although an injury suffered a few weeks ago might keep the striker out of contention for a few more weeks, recent news has suggested that he might return to training in as little as 10 days. This could put him right up there in contention for the main striker’s role.
Hazard will likely slot into one of the wide positions. Napoli’s Dries Mertens is the best option to take up the opposite side of the field.
The diminutive attacker has enjoyed two glorious seasons with his club following the departure of former talisman Higuain to Juventus.
Scoring 34 and 22 goals in the last two campaigns respectively, Mertens is one of the best examples of a player who has improved drastically since Belgium’s last major international outing.
Center of the park
First of all, there are several options to consider in the midfield. But as mentioned before, De Bruyne is the only one who goes straight into the team. The creative City player is best deployed as an attacking midfielder in front of a defensive pairing.
With Radja Nainggolan retiring, as recent reports suggest, that leaves a few solid options. Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini and Mousa Dembele are all essentially vying for just one other spot in midfield.
In my head, the choice is pretty clear – Dembele.
The Spurs player has enjoyed an exceptional last two seasons in England. He’s been one of the most consistent performers in the team. Possessing incredible awareness, ball control and physicality, the midfielder is the most dynamic option.
Fellaini is a decent option but may have to settle for a place on the bench.
Witsel, on the other hand, has not impressed. Yes, he can probably get away against weaker teams but provides very little when put up against one of the heavyweights.
One such example was his showing against Italy in the group stages of Euro 2016. He was outclassed by his midfield counter-parts throughout the game with the Azzurri eventually running out 2-0 winners.
If a match calls for a defensive shape, either Witsel or Fellaini can be brought on to provide extra cover in midfield.
Vincent Kompany is arguably the best defensive option for the Belgians.
Surely, he will go straight into the starting eleven as one of the three center-backs. There is little doubt regarding the other central options. Tottenham duo Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld will likely take those places.
The wing-back positions, however, are a slight cause for concern for Martinez and his team because they don’t have a genuine “wing-back.”
The Spaniard is likely going to go with PSG star Thomas Meunier on the right with either Yannick Carrasco or Jordan Lukaku on the left.
Having mostly used the former Atletico attacker as a left-wing-back during the qualification rounds, he is likely to stick with his preferred choice during the competition in Russia as well.
He may switch to the more defensive Jordan Lukaku if the situation calls for it but Carrasco is probably the right man to go with in the starting 11.
For the goalkeeper’s spot, there is a clear winner and that is Courtois. His closest contender is Simon Mignolet who is far from the Chelsea shot-stopper’s level and has even fallen out of favor at his club Liverpool, losing his place to Loris Karius.
In conclusion, you have Courtois in goal with Meunier, Kompany, Alderweireld, Vertonghen and Carrasco making up the five-man defense.
In midfield there is Dembele as an enforcer with De Bruyne in front of them. Hazard, Lukaku and Mertens make up the front three.
On paper, this team appears unbeatable but their fate in the tournament will come down to mental attributes and the tactics deployed by the manager.
100+ Channels With Sports & News
- Starting price: $29.99/mo. for fubo Español Package
- Watch Premier League, LaLiga, Liga MX & MLS
- Includes NBC, NBCSN, ESPN, FS1, FS2, TUDN, beIN SPORTS and more
Favorite Leagues At The Best Price
- Starting price: $7.99/mo. for Live TV Package
- Watch LaLiga, Primeira Liga and Copa Libertadores
- Includes beIN SPORTS, GolTV, TyC Sports and more
Many Sports & ESPN Originals
- Price: $5.99/mo. (or get ESPN+, Hulu & Disney+ for $12.99/mo.)
- Features Serie A, Bundesliga, FA Cup, EFL & more
- Also includes daily ESPN FC news & highlights show
Live TV, Soccer & Originals
- Starting price: $5.99/mo.
- Features Champions League, Europa League & NWSL
- Includes CBS, Star Trek & CBS Sports HQ