Euro 2020 preview, Group B – Belgium: John Chapman on the Red Devils’ talented but ageing squad
Our Matchday Squad will cover every nation at the Euros
For Euro 2020, we’ve assembled 24 expert journalists to give you the latest insight and tips on every team throughout the tournament.
Here, John Chapman gives us his take on Belgium…
Give us an overview of your team’s chances at Euro 2020
In 2009, Belgium were 66th in the FIFA rankings. Six years later, they were the number one team in the world: a remarkable transformation.
Talk of a golden generation – with Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen and Eden Hazard prominent – soon started and victory in a major tournament was seen to be only a matter of time. In 2012, Mark Wilmots acquired the golden ticket to manage the team but, during his four years in charge, he failed to make the most of an exceptionally talented squad.
After Belgium’s rather inglorious exit at Euro 2016, Roberto Martinez took over at the helm and he’s developed a happier and more united camp. After two years under his leadership, Belgium reached the World Cup semi-finals in Russia and were arguably the best team in the tournament.
Since then, Kompany, Moussa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini have all left the stage. On the plus side, Romelu Lukaku, Youri Tielemans and Yannick Carrasco are much better players now than they were back in 2018.
It’s an experienced squad but a worryingly aging one, especially in the defensive zone. Prior to the last World Cup, Belgian media pundits were saying that it was the generation’s last chance to win a major trophy. Three years on, they are likely to be repeating those words.
What would you say are your team’s major strengths?
Of Belgium’s 26-man squad, 21 are playing in the ‘big five’ leagues. Many have experience of the latter stages of the major European competitions.
Leading the current pack are Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois and Lukaku. Looking at the squad, the competition for places in midfield and attack is intense. The team’s potency lies in its attacking capability with Belgium scoring a record number of goals in the qualifying rounds: 40 in 10 matches.
The team spirit is excellent, with many players having matured and evolved in the international environment.
And any weaknesses?
Martinez has selected five centre backs and, of these, only Jason Denayer is under 30. This could be a telling factor as the tournament progresses.
The issue is compounded by Axel Witsel’s achilles tendon injury, one that has kept him side-lined since January. His inclusion in the squad is an act of faith by Martinez and one helped by the decision to have enlarged squads of 26 players. Witsel offers maximum security in front of the defence and his absence would be a major blow.
Another concern is Eden Hazard’s injury record that has meant that prior to his call-up for the Euros, he hasn’t featured for Belgium since November 2019.
Give us the lowdown on your team’s star player?
Romelu Lukaku has always scored goals – a total of 250 in just over 500 games. Despite that, he’s frequently been labelled as a powerful striker lacking the requisite technical ability to succeed at the highest levels.
That tune changed once he joined Inter Milan in 2019. With Antonio Conte as his mentor, Lukaku has become the ultimate striker – tactically astute, hard-working and with a killer touch.
On the international scene, his record has been remarkable: 48 goals in his last 49 games. Furthermore, Lukaku captained Belgium last October and was said to be important to the team, both on and off the pitch.
And tell us about a player from your team who could be a breakthrough star at this tournament?
Last year, Martinez looked to be building for the future. Not now, as the average of the Euros squad is 29, with only three players aged 25 or younger.
Despite that, my choice for a breakthrough star is 26: Brighton’s Leandro Trossard. He’s a late developer, only making his international debut in 2020. Trossard has the versatility to play in an advanced role in midfield or attack.
In his final season at Genk he had 22 goals and 11 assists, as well as being made captain. Trossard has the ability and the confidence to make his mark in at Euro 2020.
How far do you think your team can go in this tournament?
Belgium can reach the semi-final stage and could, of course, go all the way. They have individual players of the highest class and a team spirit fostered over the years. They can beat any team on their day, as they have shown.
However, it’s an aging squad and injuries to key players may make it more difficult for them to grasp that trophy. They need both Witsel and Eden Hazard to be fully fit as the tournament progresses.
Just like he did with Kompany in Russia, Martinez might strike lucky with his resurrection of key players during a tournament but it’s a long shot. With a full-strength team, De Bruyne and Tielemans could pull enough strings in midfield and Big Rom could take them to the final. But the semi-finals look a more likely bet.
Easy one to finish with, who wins the tournament, and who do you think will be top scorer?
France to win the tournament with Karim Benzema being top scorer.