Belgium has the stars to compete with anyone in the world, but it hasn't yet turned into trophy success on the biggest stage. 

By 90Min
June 05, 2018

Belgium heads to the World Cup this summer with an overriding sense that it's now or never.

This current crop of Belgian stars have been repeatedly labeled as the nation's golden generation, but the Red Devils have largely disappointed in recent tournaments. Belgium went out at the quarterfinal stage to eventual finalists Argentina in 2014, and then again at the same stage to Wales, losing 3-1 in embarrassing fashion during Euro 2016.

Even so, Belgium will once again be tipped to make the final in Russia, thanks to the considerable talent the small nation boasts. The likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens, Romelu Lukaku, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are enough to contend with any team in the world on their day.

Here's a look at how Belgium qualified for the World Cup, its group stage games and a possible route to the final.


How They Qualified

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Belgium strolled through its qualifying group with ease, making light work of a group that included minnows in Gibraltar and Cyprus, but also some teams worthy of respect in Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

In the end, it made no difference as Les Diables Rouge swept all before them, scoring 43 goals (tied for the most among UEFA teams with Germany) and only conceding six en route to a comfortable first-place finish. 

Their closest challenge came from Euro 2004 champions Greece, who finished second with 19 points. Greece was the only team to take any points from Belgium, holding the power to a 1-1 draw in Brussels. 

Still, Belgium topped the group with 28 points from a possible 30 and became the first European team to qualify for the World Cup, doing so in September 2017.


Group Stage Games

Belgium boss Roberto Martinez probably high-fived England manager Gareth Southgate after the two nations were drawn in the same group alongside Panama and Tunisia.

If either Belgium or England fails to get out of Group G, it will undoubtedly be a shock. The only real question is which country will win the group and which will be the runner-up.

It's convenient that Belgium and England meet in the last group game on June 28, and not solely because the players will be familiar with one another as most of Belgium's squad ply their trade in the Premier League (Tottenham alone has three players in Vertonghen, Alderweireld and Mousa Dembele). Both will have likely secured a knockout berth by that point, but there's still the matter of securing first place and arguably a more palatable path in the elimination rounds.


Possible Route to the Final

The popular opinion is that Belgium will indeed top Group G, thus setting up an intriguing route to the final.

It would begin with a knockout match against either Poland or Colombia (though don't underestimate the capabilities of both Senegal and Japan to steal second place in Group H), both tricky opponents in their own right–yet neither has the defensive talent to stop the attacking powers Belgium possesses. 

A win there would set up a quarterfinal against probable opponent Brazil in a matchup of star-laden teams. Another quarterfinal exit would at the very least be understandable, if not highly disappointing. But the matchup would also present the opportunity to make a statement and exorcise some past demons. It's a challenge Belgium should relish.

If it gets beyond the quarterfinal hurdle, France could be waiting in the semifinals for a battle of neighboring nations. 

Take care of business against Les Bleus, and Belgium would find themselves in its first World Cup final, where Spain and Germany would be the odds-on favorites to join them from the other end of the bracket.


Squad

Goalkeepers: Koen Casteels (Wolfsburg), Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool)

Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Dedryck Boyata (Celtic), Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona)

Midfielders: Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang), Nacer Chadli (West Brom), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Mousa Dembele (Tottenham), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Monchengladbach), Adnan Januzaj (Real Sociedad), Thomas Meunier (Paris Saint-Germain), Youri Tielemans (Monaco), Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian)

Forwards: Michy Batshuayi (Borussia Dortmund), Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United), Dries Mertens (Napoli)


Predicted Lineup

Martinez is already bearing the full wrath of Belgium's media and fans after omitting Radja Nainggolan from the squad, saying that it was 'purely a tactical decision.' 

He has another headache to worry about too, as skipper Vincent Kompany picked up a groin knock against Portugal in a recent friendly and now faces a fight to be fit for the first game against Panama.

Assuming Kompany will be fit, Martinez is likely to stick with some variant of the 3-4-2-1 formation he has favored recently.

Potential Belgium Lineup: Courtois, Vertonghen, Kompany, Alderweireld, Meunier, De Bruyne, Dembele, Carrasco, Hazard, Mertens, Lukaku.


Outlook

There's a reason Belgium is not in the top tier of favorites to win the competition. On paper, it boasts enough talent to challenge the world's best on any given day - but when has paper ever beaten the harsh realities of a World Cup?

In the past, questions have been asked about the team's unity. In this tournament, they will focus on the capabilities of Martinez. Having already made a bold (some would say questionable) decision to leave Nainggolan at home, he has work to do to make sure the fans and media are behind the team, and that the team itself remains committed to his plan.

If the Red Devils do that, they could go far - they might even cause a shock by taking out Brazil. If they can't at least make it to the quarterfinals, there will be hell to pay.

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