Progression key for Belgium as attention turns to Euro 2016
After a less than inspiring exit to eventual runners-up Argentina at the World Cup this summer, Belgium’s supposed ‘golden generation’ now embark on a European Championship qualifying campaign with a host of ifs, buts and maybes.
Heading to France 2016, Coral see the Belgians at 12/1 to win the tournament, making them joint-sixth in the bookmaker’s estimation with England and ahead of Portugal.
Despite being heralded as competition dark horses for this summer in Brazil, Belgium rarely turned up the heat in any of their fixtures.
Belgium were, to their credit one of three teams, along with neighbours Holland and Colombia, to pick up maximum points in the group stages.
After coming from behind to beat surprise package Algeria 2-1, they recorded two 1—0 wins over Russia and South Korea – yet no game truly exuded the obvious talent that manager Marc Wilmots had at his disposal.
It was no surprise that late magic from star man Eden Hazard proved the catalyst behind these wins after floating on the periphery in the main.
As with Chelsea, Hazard is primarily adopted on the left-side of the front three for the Red Devils, but his anonymity for large parts of play have prompted questions about whether his talents would be more influential in a central role.
With a catalogue of big names littered throughout Europe’s elite, the stars appeared to have aligned in Belgium football bringing about the media coined ‘golden generation’.
Captain Vincent Kompany, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and indeed Hazard can all be realistically regarded as in company with the very best players in their positions in the world.
A supporting cast featuring Mousa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini, Kevin De Bruyne, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Axel Witsel and Christian Benteke to name a few, gives the Belgians a balanced and durable feel that suggested strength in virtually every area.
Factor in emerging talent like Adnan Januzaj, Romelu Lukaku and Divock Origi, who all have the attributes to reach superstar status when they reach the apex of their powers, there was every reason to buy into the excitement.
England certainly bought into their fair share of hopes and dreams during the last decade or so with an alleged golden generation of their own.
In that time frame, the Three Lions never managed to surpass a quarter-final in major international tournaments. Belgium, of course, reached that stage this summer before Argentina overcame them thanks to Gonzalo Higuain’s instinctive strike – they’ll be hoping that doesn’t set the same precedent England suffered.
The good news for Belgium’s burgeoning squad is that the average age of their team was the third youngest at the finals. Only one player was over the age of 30, and that was 36-year-old veteran Daniel van Buyten.
On the strength of that statistic, the Belgian squad could be viewed as too inexperienced to truly challenge on the grandest stage. Two years on from now however, should Wilmots select the exact same squad, minus Van Buyten, only one player would be over the age of 30 –Nicolas Lombaerts of Zenit St Petersburg.
As their group games at the World Cup suggested, this is a young, promising team, still finding its rhythm and identity at this juncture.
So far, it could be argued that it’s simply a group of high calibre players meshed into one team. Until they have a collective style of sorts, the potency required to thrive in the international arena may continue to allude them.
The chopping and changing of Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas on the right-hand side, as well as the switching of Lukaku and Origi suggested Wilmots may have not, truly known his best XI, or the plethora of options challenged his judgement.
With regards to the future, Belgium’s youth sides have not fared so well in recent memory. The Under-21 outfit have not qualified for the UEFA Under-21 Championship since their semi-final appearance back in 2007, making them absent from the last three.
Their 2007 team incidentally featured the likes of Fellaini, Witsel, Vermaelen and Vertonghen to name a few.
Unfortunately, the well has run dry recently, with the Under-19 side also struggling for results. They haven’t qualified for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup since 1997, meaning they have just completed their ninth unsuccessful qualifying campaign on the bounce.
While the progression of their youth teams may have stalled, names like Zakaria Bakkali (PSV) and recent arrival at Marseille Michy Batshuayi aged 18 and 20 respectively, are players worth keeping an eye on as they hover around the first-team picture.
The young nature of Wilmots’ squad indicates the youth levels of Belgian football have been bypassed in recent times and they’ve headed straight for the main stage.
This tactic may serve Belgium well in the long run, assuming the wealth of talent can be arranged correctly. If so, Coral believe at 16/1 the Belgians are joint sixth favourites alongside Italy to lift the World Cup in 2018, as Russia play hosts.