It was once said that you can’t win anything with kids, and that’s exactly what Belgium will be hoping for at the 2022 in .
It is the last throw of the dice for their experienced Golden Generation, with 11 players aged 30 or over, including ex-Tottenham defensive duo Jan Vertonghen (35) and (33), who still regularly start in Roberto Martinez’s 3-4-3 along with (31), Axel Witsel (33) and Thomas Meunier (31).
The Red Devils have never won the World Cup – with Belgium’s best-ever result coming in 2018 as they finished third – and they are the only country to be ranked the No.1 team in the world without ever lifting it. Now ranked No.2, this is a nation desperate for glory and one with a point to prove…
The Manager: Roberto Martinez
Belgium boss Roberto Martinez is well known in England after his time spent managing Swansea, Wigan and Everton. His biggest moment came at Wigan, where he masterminded an epic FA Cup run, guiding them to the 2012-13 trophy after toppling a star-studded Manchester City in the final.
The Spaniard left Everton in May 2016 but ended up taking the Belgium job three months later, where he has stayed ever since. He has enjoyed a great deal of success – guiding Belgium to the No.1 ranking and to their best finish at a World Cup – but many felt Belgium should have won the 2018 tournament and their Euro 2020 campaign also ended in disappointment with a quarter-final defeat.
There are similarities that can be drawn between Martinez and England boss Gareth Southgate. Both managers have been in their jobs for six years, usually operate with a 3-4-3 and are known for picking the same players consistently despite club form. There are 11 Belgium players who have been involved in more than 60 per cent of Martinez’s 76 games in charge, so you can’t fault him for loyalty.
Star Player: Kevin De Bruyne
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Kevin De Bruyne is a player that needs no introduction. We all know that the Manchester City midfielder is one of the best players in the world, registering 60 goals and 97 assists in 224 Premier League games, but his importance for Belgium since making his debut in 2010 has been immense.
He has scored 25 goals across 93 appearances for his country, making De Bruyne the 10th most-capped player ever for Belgium and also their 10th top scorer in history. At Euro 2020 he played in the quarter-final despite having an ankle injury and took injections so he did not miss such a big game.
At 31, the four-time Premier League winner will know it is now or never if he wants to add a World Cup trophy to his list of accomplishments. His link up play with Romelu Lukaku has been crucial in recent years but with question marks over the striker’s fitness, De Bruyne will need to be in top form.
Young Player to Watch: Lois Openda
It will be interesting to see how Belgium’s dilemma over strikers unfolds in Qatar. Romelu Lukaku is the main man, but has only just returned from the hamstring injury he suffered in August and may well not be 100 per cent fit to start.
That could see Michy Batshuayi starting up top, who has an excellent record for Belgium with 26 goals across 47 matches, and could also provide valuable minutes for Lois Openda from the bench.
Openda, 22, is one of the youngest players in the 26-man squad but is enjoying a fantastic season in Ligue 1 for French club Lens, scoring seven goals across 15 games since he joined them this summer.
His impressive form has helped Lens climb to second in Ligue 1 behind Paris Saint-Germain and despite knocking up just four caps for Belgium thus far we could see him break through in Qatar.
Roberto Martinez is known for his possession-based style of football and has previously named Johan Cruyff as one of his biggest inspirations when it comes to tactics.
He usually deploys a 3-4-3 formation with three centre backs, two wing-backs, two midfield players and an attacking three.
When attacking, Belgium mainly rely on dribbling, short passing and move sequences in tight spaces and do not tend to focus on long passes or crossing the ball.
His back three is known to play with a high defensive line but with Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld getting older and older it may leave them vulnerable when it comes to counter-attacks.
How they’ll line up:
Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois will start in goal and it will be interesting to see who joins Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld in the three-man defence, but our money is on Aston Villa’s Leander Dendoncker.
Thomas Meunier, Axel Witsel, Yannick Carrasco and are all regular starters under Roberto Martinez while the front three will consist of Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard alongside a central striker.
There is chance it could be Romelu Lukaku if Martinez deems he is ready to start, but the most likely starter appears to be former Chelsea forward Michy Batshuayi.
Belgium have been placed in Group F alongside Croatia, Morocco and Canada and it is very hard to see them not come out on top, even with an aging squad and concerns over Romelu Lukaku’s fitness.
That would likely see them face Germany in the last 16, which would be a much harder test for the Red Devils – but with the Germans at their weakest in decades – you would expect them to win that too, even if they need extra-time or penalties to get the job done.
But this is where things get tricky for Belgium. They would then likely have to beat Portugal in the last eight and France in the semi-finals to make their first ever World Cup final. Beating Germany will take a lot out of them, so they could crash out in the quarter-finals this time around.
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