The Raging Red Devils: Can Belgium Live Up to the Hype in the World Cup?
In terms of a collective footballing nation, Belgium is not Brazil. They're not Germany, Italy, Argentina, England, France, Netherlands, or Spain, either. Meaning that what’s expected of them heading into a World Cup is not the same as what’s expected from those other nations, where basically anything short of at least appearing in the finale (or winning it for a few of them) is considered a disappointment.
That’s not to say Belgium hasn’t fielded some good teams or produced some talented players, because they certainly have. But when your only claim to World Cup fame is a fourth place finish (1986), naturally the expectations placed on you will be much lower than those of the true giants of World Football.
However, despite their lack of pedigree, this year’s Belgium squad is hailed as one that could - and probably should - go deep into the tournament. No doubt giving them the label that everyone likes to bestow upon a team that "could" surprise people: dark horse.
But is the hype justifiable? Can the Red Devils live up to their number 11 FIFA World Ranking? (Which, coincidently, is their numberFire ranking as well.)
Before we answer that, let’s take peek at the Belgian roster that has everyone all hot n’ bothered.
Thibuat Courtois/Atletico Madrid (on loan from Chelsea)
Courtois is coming off back to back in seasons in which he was awarded the Ricardo Zamora Trophy, which is given to the keeper with the lowest “goals to games” ratio in the Spanish first division, La Liga. He led the league with 20 Clean Sheets in ’13/‘14, and while some of that is due to the stout defense that Atletico employed, he was every bit as dominant as those Clean Sheets suggest. Additionally, he held 5 more in 13 Champions League games, and helped lead Atletico to an appearance in the finale against crosstown rival Real Madrid. At just 22, he’s already considered not only one of the best keepers in the world, but one of the best overall young players as well.
Vincent Kompany/Manchester City
Upon playing in the World Cup this summer, Kompany will have the chance to do something very special and cap off his year with captaining his Belgian brothers out on the pitch, just shortly after doing the same for Manchester City on the way to winning the Barclay’s Premier League title and being named to the PFA Team of the Year. He’s everything you want in a center back; he positions himself well (146 clearances, 15 blocks, and 56 interceptions this year), is good in the air (won 73% of his headed duels), distributes the ball well out of the back (88% pass accuracy), and even has a knack for nicking a few goals as he demonstrated by bagging four for City this year.
Injuries plagued Vertonghen this year, causing him to miss 15 games, but he’s just one year removed from a season in which he was arguably one of the most complete defenders in the Premier League, if not the world. Just have a look at this: 308 clearances, 100 interceptions, 84/123 tackles won (68%), 25 chances created (3 assists), and 4 goals scored. According to my notes, that’s pretty good. Naturally a center back, when JV’s handling his international duties he slides out to left back due to the presence of Thomas Vermaelen, which probably suites him better as it allows him the freedom to help in attack but at the same time track back when he needs to.
There was a period of time during the ’13/’14 Premier League season where this dazzling Belgian was every bit as dominant as one Luis Suárez, who would go on to win the PFA Player of the Year award. Perhaps not on a goal-scoring level as Suárez, who netted 31 to Hazard's 14, but in terms of creating chances and putting pressure on the defense, they were in the same breath for a good portion of the year. In fact, Hazard’s 92 created chances (7 assists) were the most by any Premier League player last season.
Chelsea boss man, Jose Mourinho, took the shackles off this midfield wizard, and the world was exposed to how deadly he is with the ball at his feet. Mourinho also said he could one day be as good as Messi and Ronaldo, and while he’s got a ways to go before he reaches that level, there are times where he can single handedly take over a game in the fashion those two giants can. Oh yeah, he’s only 23.
Adnan Januzaj/Manchester United
Though this 19 year old was probably under utilized by David Moyes in a nightmare season for the 20-time Premier League champions, when he did see the field, he often made an impact. He only provided 4 goals and 3 assists in his 27 appearances, but what he did do was show the type of quality on the ball and pace that had England and home nation Belgium fighting over his services (FIFA’s eligibility rules are a mess. Don’t ask). And if you’re but a mere 19 years old and countries are already fighting over you, you’re probably pretty special. He was fouled 60 times in those 27 app’s, which demonstrates how much of a pain in the side he was to opposing defenders.
Romelu Lukaku/Everton (on loan from Chelsea)
If you watched Chelsea at all this year, at times it looked as if they were allergic to scoring goals. In fact, Mourinho himself said the team lacked a true goal-scoring striker. Silly Jose, did you not know not know you have one in Romelu Lukaku? Surely not, otherwise you wouldn’t have loaned him out to Everton.
And boy did Lukaku make that look like a poor decision, as he found the back of the net 15 times for the Toffee’s this year. And what makes it even worse is Mourinho knew he was capable of this as he so amply demonstrated the previous year for West Bromwich Albion (on loan again) when he knocked in 17. Point being, Lukaku knows how to score goals and has proven it in the best league in the world. He’s a big-bodied striker who can score with either foot as well as use his large frame to get his head on the ball. He’ll be a lovely target for someone the likes of Hazard or Januzaj to pick out as their playing the ball into the box.
Those are but a few highlights of the talented roster that Belgium will be taking to the World Cup. Certainly players like the aforementioned Vermaelen come to mind, as do midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Kevin Mirallas, but for now the six I listed should wet your appetite.
Now, on to the burning question at hand. How far can they go? Can all that talent come together and translate into a deep Cup run? Well, as I mentioned earlier, they’re numberFire rating, or nERD as we like to call it, stands at 2.49 and puts them 11th out of 32 teams. As you may well know, while talent does ultimately win out, where a team is slated in the tournament can often aid in determining their success or lack theirof - especially early on.
In this regard, Belgium were dealt a favorable hand when they were grouped with Russia, Algeria, and Korea. Now, obviously nothing is guaranteed, but with a 78.97% chance of making out of Group H, they should have no trouble in handling the three other teams to become one of the two teams to escape the group.
After the group stages, we see that they have a 39.10% chance of advancing to the quarterfinals. While that may not seem like a high percentage, it's actually eighth best.
The odds don’t favor them advancing any further, but something tells me the nation of Belgium and it’s football supporters would be very satisfied with that showing. Which, if I might be so bold to say, would be quite a dark-horse-like performance.