Belgian football writer previews the Red Devils' Euro 2016 for Newstalk.com
Belgium, one of the dark horses of the World Cup in Brazil in 2014.
Two years later you should expect them to be one of the favourites to win Euro 2016 knowing they are the top ranked European team in the FIFA rankings. Well they're not, just because this generation still has a lot to show before we can call them the top favourite to win a big tournament. Germany, Spain and France are for me the top three teams to beat this tournament. Belgium has a lot of quality but Germany and Spain are the two countries with a big World Cup and European Cup tradition. France struggles a bit more the in the last few years compared with Germany and Spain but are playing at home so that also gives them an edge on Belgium.
The Red Devils also didn't have a great preparation in recent weeks. Vincent Kompany fell by the wayside after the Champions League semi-finals between Manchester City and Real Madrid. The Belgian team captain is not only important for Belgium's back four but he will also be missed off the pitch and in the dressing room. No other player is ready to take over his leadership. Kompany is a player who takes on a lot of responsibility, a task that will be not be filled to the same degree by new captain Eden Hazard. His usual centre-back partner Nicolas Lombaerts of Zenit Saint-Petersburg has also missed out.
Marc Wilmots has puzzle to solve in the first games to work out which back four combination is the best option. Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen will likely be Wilmots' two central defenders. Jordan Lukaku, Romelu's brother, will likely be Belgium's left back. On the other side Wilmots tried to play with Jason Denayer from Manchester City but he didn't impress against Norway. With Laurent Ciman (Montreal Impact) and Thomas Meunier (Club Brugge) the national coach still has two other options.
Belgian national soccer players Romelu Lukaku, left, Eden Hazard, 2nd left, Kevin De Bruyne, 2nd right, and Christian Benteke smile during the team's training session in Knokke, Belgium, on Friday May 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
As you can tell, Belgium is one of the countries with the most common problem in football: Our full backs. Jordan Lukaku is a player who likes to attack and try to get involved in Belgium's attacking game. Wilmots on the other hand just wants his defenders to defend. However, Wilmots seems to have triggered something with Jordan and asked him to pick only a handful of moments and instead be deadly efficient when running forward. The goal against Portugal was the perfect example, Jordan delivered a great assist... to his brother Romelu. If he can keep his focus on his positioning Jordan could become one of the revelations of this national team and maybe even of the tournament. On the right side Wilmots still hasn't found a solution and there are still four players in the running for that position. Toby Alderweireld will probably play together with Jan Vertonghen as a central duo so that still leaves three players. Meunier is not fit enough at the moment, so a decision between Ciman and Jason Denayer will be the only option for Wilmots. I guess he will go for Ciman to give his back four more defensive stability.
Belgium national soccer coach Marc Wilmots gives instructions during the team's training session in Knokke, Belgium. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert, File)
If Belgium want to get to the semi-finals they'll need an excellent Kevin De Bruyne and Hazard with an efficient Romelu Lukaku. Big Rom doesn't need to play big games but only needs to score goals. Hazard and especially De Bruyne are the architects of this national team. The Belgian press are talking a lot about both players' best position. De Bruyne as a No 10 or even Hazard at 10. I think both players are talented and have enough footballing intelligence to change positions during a game. The other attacking position will be filled by Yannick Carrasco or Dries Mertens. Carrasco, the Atletico Madrid winger who impressed in the Champions League final against Real Madrid, is still injured so Dries Mertens will likely start the first game. One of the most underestimated players in Belgium national team is Thibaut Courtois of course. Even if Belgium are having a difficult game we can still count on our goalkeeper. Another key for Belgium's succes could be our defensive midfield. We have some talented players like Radja Nainggolan, Axel Witsel, Moussa Dembélé and Marouane Fellaini but Wilmots doesn't seem able to find the right balance.
The quarter finals is a must for this team. Afterwards it depends how the tournament develops and who the opponents are.
In our group, Ireland will be a big test for Belgium. The Red Devils always have it very difficult against teams who keep the door locked at the back. Germany only managed to score one goal in their two legs against Ireland.
We'll need to keep the pace up and try to score in the first half. It's also the second game of the group so a very important one. Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady will try to get forwards to create moments of glory and that could be the key moments for Belgium. Hazard and De Bruyne will need to take advantage of these moments with some efficient counter-attacks. Hendrick and Hoolahan are the two players to keep an eye on. If we can cut off their passing lines and Vertonghen and Alderweireld can keep Shane Long out of the game Belgium should be able to win this game.
But like I've said before this will probably be the toughest game in the group for Belgium as they want to play against teams who try to dominate the game.