Belgium aren’t the dark horses any more
Belgium have more than enough to go a step further than their 1986 counterparts
New Delhi: Belgium’s victory over a brave Panama reminded everyone of two things: one, if you are a tenacious team with nothing to lose, you can hold off the Belgians for a while. Two, once the floodgates open and, they find a way through, they can be devastating on the counter.
On this instance, the floodgates opened when Napoli’s Dries Mertens caught the Telstar 18 with a volley that finally broke Panama’s resistance with a 47th-minute goal. The game ended in the next 28 minutes. Romelu Lukaku scored twice. His first was a guided header after Kevin De Bruyne found him with a cross from the outside of his right boot. Lukaku’s second was assisted by Eden Hazard—a charging run and a perfectly weighted pass that was dispatched in style by the Manchester United striker.
Four years ago in Brazil, Lukaku had scored two goals in the entire tournament. He already has two in Russia, in the opener.
In many ways, this Belgium squad has graduated from “the team to watch” to “the team to beat” over the past four years. After missing out on two consecutive World Cups, they had reached the quarter finals in Brazil. In Russia, they have not only entered the competition with one of the youngest squads (average age of 27.6), but also with a fair bit of experience shared among some of their key players: Thibaut Courtois (59 caps), Toby Alderweireld (78 caps), Jan Vertonghen (103 caps), De Bruyne (63 caps), Mousa Dembele (77 caps) and Hazard (87 caps), to name a few.
The current Belgium team is also worth its weight in goals and talent. Their front three against Panama (Mertens, Lukaku and Hazard) scored a combined 55 league goals for their respective clubs. Having Thierry Henry as their second assistant coach only makes things better. It is not a surprise that the team scored 43 goals in their 10 World Cup qualifiers.
The numbers in the midfield don’t disappoint either. De Bruyne (eight goals and 16 assists in the Premier League last season), probably has the most productive right foot in football as of now. He averaged almost 73 passes in every match for Manchester City last season. Dembele, who came on as a substitute against Panama, had a tackle success rate of 67% for Tottenham.
In Roberto Martinez, they have a young manager who has generated fluid, attractive football from his previous clubs (Everton and Swansea City). He did, however, create some controversy by leaving out Roma’s Radja Nainggolan from the squad for Russia. Nainggolan’s absence was not felt against Panama, and Martinez will hope it remains that way.
Some of their other players, such as Vincent Kompany, Michy Batshuayi, Adnan Januzaj, Marouanne Fellaini, Nacer Chadli and Youri Tielemans, did not feature against Panama. But this is not a bad bench at all to have at a World Cup.
Back in 1986, the Red Devils of Belgium were inspired by the likes of Jan Ceulemans and Enzo Scifo. It was their best ever performance in a World Cup, where they lost 2-0 in the semi-final to an Argentina team, which had a certain Diego Maradona in their ranks. In 2018, this Belgium team has more than enough to go a step further than their 1986 counterparts. They are not the quintessential dark horses anymore.
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