Belgium's Euro 2016 fate to be decided in three key areas
Regardless of what happens this summer, Belgians will be in high demand in the transfer window. Real Madrid reportedly wants Thibaut Courtois, Chelsea is after Radja Nainggolan and Romelu Lukaku is wanted by a host of top teams. Marc Wilmots’s side is second in the FIFA world ranking and has been the highest-ranked European side for the last year.
In spite of all that, it is not seen as one of the top favorites for Euro 2016. Why is that?
Belgium qualified in first place from Group B but was hardly outstanding; it failed to scored in two games against Wales, losing the away match 1-0. Wilmots has a wealth of talent at his disposal, but his biggest problem has been having to fit square pegs into round holes.
How does he get the best out of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, who all like having their domestic teams built around them? Why not pick Tottenham center backs Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld in the middle now that the first-choice pairing of Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts has been ruled out? Is the best midfield balance two or three, and if it's the latter, is there room for Mousa Dembele?
Wilmots has the next few weeks to solve these issues. If he does, then Belgium could be involved in the final in Paris next month.
The star attacking trio
Wilmots has described Hazard and De Bruyne as “my two Messis” and always insisted that they can work together. In a 4-2-3-1, Hazard starts on the left and De Bruyne centrally; the Manchester City playmaker is much more influential in the game but both have freedom to swap positions. If Wilmots plays three midfielders, as he is expected to do against Italy, then De Bruyne moves wide in a 4-3-3.
Lukaku went over 15 months without scoring for Belgium, but a recent hot streak has secured his starting position for the Red Devils. He is still yet to win over the Belgian fans, which he claims is because they don't watch him regularly in action for Everton.
“In England, I am respected, by the public, by coaches and by experts like Jamie Carragher and Graeme Souness,” he told Sport/Foot. “People in Belgium remember me from my Anderlecht days when I was still raw.”
The key person, of course, is Wilmots, and Lukaku has spoken to him about his role.
“I told him, ‘I am available, I am no longer a player for the future, I’m a man now, I am in the present, I’m a danger, I’m confirmed, I can do damage, I have a reputation, and I’m ready.’”
The pep talk seems to have done the trick on Wilmots, but it seems significant–and perhaps concerning–that it was not the other way around.
The defensive selection rotation
The biggest concern for the coach is the absence of Kompany, a leader on and off the pitch. The main problem is that his replacement, Thomas Vermaelen, has barely played all season at Barcelona. It seems strange that Wilmots refuses to pair the Premier League’s best center back partnership in the middle, but because of the lack of options at fullback, he prefers to play Vertonghen (left) and Alderweireld (right) there.
In the recent friendly against Switzerland, he partnered Vermaelen with Alderweireld in the middle and picked Axel Witsel, a midfielder, at right back.
Against Finland, it was Vermaelen and Jason Denayer, who wore the armband. Laurent Ciman, the Montreal Impact's reigning MLS Defender of the Year, could also be a fullback option. In the last few days, Wilmots seems to have decided on another plan: Vermaelen and Alderweireld in the center and Denayer at right back.
The midfield conundrum
Wilmots will pick Fellaini to hold and Nainggolan, if fit, to push forward. He also likes Witsel, and though Dembele had an excellent season at Spurs, he was not used much in qualifying.
Wilmots has game-changers like Yannick Carrasco-Ferreira and Michy Batshuayi on the bench, but his real challenge is in making the starting XI work.
Hazard ended the season in excellent form for Chelsea–leading some cynics to suggest that after the Champions League elimination, he was saving himself for this tournament–and De Bruyne had a three-month injury layoff so will be fresher than most.
Those two alone could win the competition for Belgium, as long as the makeshift defense holds firm.
This team is no longer a golden generation or a young team for the future. It is the highest-ranked team in France. It has the players to go all the way.
Can Wilmots make the right decisions to make it happen?