Jun 30

Belgium Expects!

Divock Origi - the latest man in the headlines (copyright John Chapman)

Divock Origi – the latest man in the headlines (copyright John Chapman)

Tomorrow, Belgium will play its most important game for 12 years. On 17 June, 2002, Belgium lost 2-0 to Brazil in a match remembered by Belgians for Marc Wilmots’ disallowed goal. Now Wilmots is back and he’s in charge of a group known variously as ‘a golden generation’, ‘dark horses’ or ‘everyone’s favourite second team’.

That’s because half of the squad play in the Premier League and as everyone knows, it’s the greatest league in the World. Well, the most spectacular perhaps but not always with matches of the highest quality. The end result has been, whichever way you cut it, that although Belgium have got maximum points, the performances have not lived up to the (over-hyped) expectations.

The team has not really clicked and so far they’ve managed about 20 minutes of effective football. As for the Premier League stars, the major contributions to-date have come from Axel Witsel (Zenit Saint Petersburg), Dries Mertens (Napoli),  Divock Origi (Lille) and Daniel Van Buyten (unattached).

There was a five minutes cameo from Chelsea’s Eden Hazard against Russia and, to be fair, he had a clutch of Russians watching him closer than the KGB. I am not saying the squad is not talented. It most certainly is, but this young group is inexperienced at the highest levels of international tournament football. They are on a learning curve, as is Wilmots.

As for the latest player to arrive on the back pages, Origi is an interesting character. Aged 19, his Kenyan father played for Oostende and Genk and Divock was born in the former city. Unknown a couple of weeks ago except to his family, friends and Lille supporters, Origi scored against Russia and now Liverpool have offered 10 million euros for the boy. Romelu Lukaku – yesterday’s top teenager – has several points to prove.

Axel Witsel - Belgium's Mr. Consistency (copyright John Chapman)

Axel Witsel – Belgium’s Mr. Consistency (copyright John Chapman)

But what about the USA? I spoke to Liviu Bird, who writes for Sports Illustrated and – during the World Cup – the Telegraph, about American ‘soccer’. Asked about expectations, He feels that the fans didn’t think Klinsmann’s men would emerge from a group that contained Germany and Portugal.

There’s a parallel here with Belgium, as most fans felt they would get out of their – relatively easy –group, but would then have problems with Portugal, possibly, and Germany, certainly. So it’s a game that no one foresaw; of the two teams, the US squad has the better form to-date.

Americans are excited about the progress, and Liviu says that’s true even for those who only watch ‘soccer’ every four years. Likewise, Belgians are getting behind Wilmots’ team in a way that has never been seen before. The country is awash with Belgian flags – in a country that is not known for nationalism – and there has been massive merchandising and a spectacularly successful marketing campaign which led to all of the qualification games being sold out.

But that’s where the comparison ends as the USA has 300 million inhabitants while Belgium has 11 million. That makes it the size of Ohio.

Part of the Belgian branding

Part of the Belgian branding

Liviu highlights Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman as USA’s stand-out performers in the group stage. None can be said to be household names – certainly not in Belgium – in the sense that they haven’t had Premier League exposure but they have all been doing the jobs that Klinsmann asked them to do.

He included five German-Americans in his squad and both Johnson and Jones have fathers who were US servicemen. That gives this American team a multicultural feel which is increased when the Icelandic, Norwegian, Haitian and Mexican-Americans are added in. Belgium, of course, has a squad that includes players whose roots can be found in the Congo, Morocco, Spain, Mali and Martinique. The Belgian Football Association was somewhat behind the French equivalent in enticing second-generation immigrants into the fold but it’s paying off now.

Team captain Vincent Kompany - no word on his fitness until tomorrow (John Chapman copyright)

Team captain Vincent Kompany – no word on his fitness until tomorrow (John Chapman copyright)

According to Liviu, the Belgian players getting most of the publicity are Hazard, Lukaku and Fellaini which again takes us back to the power of the Premier League. He argues that USA will play in a defensive mode and hope to breakdown Belgium on the counter-attack. My gut feeling tells me that Belgium might play the same way – even if Wilmots selects an attacking line-up on paper – and that this could lead to stalemate. Tactically, Belgium needs to play to its strengths – on the wings – and bring whoever plays, from Hazard, Mertens, Mirallas and Januzaj, into the game as fast as possible. Belgium’s play has been somewhat laborious to-date and it needs to change.

If it is a stalemate, Wilmots has gone as far as saying he has seven names in his head if it comes to penalties.  As an aside, he mentioned that Hazard, Mertens and Kevin Mirallas are useful penalty takers but, as usual, he’s keeping his cards to his chest.

Tomorrow will be a big game. The USA didn’t expect to get this far and Belgium didn’t think they would be playing the Americans. Both teams will treat the other with respect but don’t expect a spectacular game. And remember, Lionel Messi and his chums are likely to be waiting in the wings.

Jun 26

It was twenty years ago today

It was 20 years ago today – give or take a few days – the Belgian team seemed to lose its way!

Marc Wilmots, spent a unhappy time in the USA at the 1994 World Cup

Marc Wilmots, spent a unhappy time in the USA at the 1994 World Cup

Twenty years ago, almost to the day, Belgium faced Saudi Arabia after having won their first two games in the World Cup. With Georges Grün having already picked up a yellow card, coach Paul Van Himst decided to rest him and several other players: Vital Borkelmans, Marc Degryse and Josep Weber.

If Belgium had defeated Saudi Arabia, they would have faced Ireland in the last 16. Instead they lost 1-0 and had to play Germany, losing 3-2 in Chicago. Among the players who came into the side to face Saudi Arabia was Marc Wilmots; he had chances to score but didn’t and was replaced after 54 minutes by Weber.

The same situation exists today as Belgium face South Korea. They’ve won their first two games and the team is likely to be changed – partly due to yellow cards having been collected by Toby Alderweireld and Axel Witsel. The difference is that Belgium have already qualified for the last 16, which wasn’t the case back in 1994. There they eventually had to qualify via one of the best third-placed teams.

Axel Witsel - his yellow card is one of the reasons the team will be changed today (copyright John Chapman)

Axel Witsel – his yellow card is one reason for changes today (copyright John Chapman)

Enzo Scifo, who captained the side, said it wasn’t the changes that made them lose to Saudi Arabia but rather the belief that they could win the game simply by turning up. Ironically, Wilmots had lost his place in the side to Weber, a fast-tracked naturalised Croat. On the return to Belgium, Wilmots said he would not play for Belgium again. He later changed his mind after Van Himst had been replaced.

Today’s squad looks much stronger than that of 1994 and it’s unthinkable that Wilmots would let a side of his go onto the pitch thinking that the game was already won. The danger is that if things do go wrong, Belgium could once again face Germany. Game on!

Jun 23

10 observations on Belgium reaching the last 16

1. Belgium’s record in the qualifiers – seven goals at home, 11 on the road – show that they are happier playing on the break when teams come at them. This means their chances could improve as they advance in the competition.

2. The selection of the midfield trio is still a problem for Marc Wilmots. Only Axel Witsel is certain to play. No one else has looked convincing; Marouane Fellaini is in essence a ‘Plan B’ when things are going wrong while Kevin De Bruyne has not looked happy in the South American climate.

Axel Witsel - Belgium's most consistent performer (copyright John Chapman)

Axel Witsel – Belgium’s Mr. Consistent (copyright John Chapman)


3. One problem that Wilmots has is that his midfield options – Nacer Chadli, Moussa Dembélé and Steven Defour – are much of a muchness, i.e. they are similar players. Wilmots ‘may’ regret omitting Radja Nainggolan and/or Thorgan Hazard but choosing them would have gone against his ‘keeping the family together’ ethic.

4. In 2011, I wrote “There is a dearth of top-class full backs in Belgium as opposed to central defenders where there is an abundance of quality and experienced performers”. Nothing has changed and teams that do attack Belgium may use this to their advantage.

5. There have been fears that Romelu Lukaku is happiest – possibly like Belgium – when playing on the break rather than as a traditional front man. These fears have been confirmed but he could be useful in the knock-out stages.

6. Choosing Divock Origi to replace Christian Benteke has proved to be an excellent decision by Wilmots. Origi looks like a real player and experienced observers say he is more advanced then Lukaku and Benteke were at a similar stage in their careers.

Divock Origi - his selection was a master stroke.

Divock Origi – his selection was a master stroke.

7. Wilmots is an inexperienced coach. This is the first time he’s been in the job anywhere for more than a year. It’s therefore no surprise that he’s learning his trade as a tactician but he’s a fine man manager and an excellent leader of men.

8. Georges Leekens, Wilmots’ predecessor, hardly ever made a substitution before the 75th minute. Wilmots has made his substitutions early and so far they have all paid off.

9. WARNING ALERT! In 1994, Belgium won their first two games and rested players against Saudi Arabia. Belgium lost that match, came third in the group and had to play Germany, losing 3-2 in Chicago.

10. In the 1986 World Cup, Belgium only won game in the group stage, against Iraq. They qualified as one of the best third-placed teams and then beat the USSR after extra time. In the quarter-final they beat Spain after a penalty shoot-out to reach the semi-finals. So they only won one match in the 90 minute timeframe. As many people say – “anything can happen in the World Cup”.

Jun 21

Wilmots keeps Capello in the dark

1-IMG_9731Ahead of Belgium’s clash with Russia on Sunday, Marc Wilmots has getting a bit tetchy with the press. He walked out on one session after a Flemish journalist from Sporza asked how Vincent Kompany’s groin strain was coming along. He’s also been receiving criticism for not initially selecting a team that could beat Algeria and on having to rely on substitutes to do the job.

Wilmots probably feels he should be praised for winning the match and using 14 players rather than 11 as he had often said that he is leading a squad rather than a team. The question now is which 11 will he start with on Sunday.

Once again, Wilmots has to decide who to play in central midfield and who to play on the right wing. It is somewhat odd that Belgium have reached this stage of the competition without a settled team but the problem is that several players have not been performing of late.

Wilmots chose the Spurs’ duo of Moussa Dembélé and Nacer Chadli against Algeria but neither player did themselves any favours. Both could find themselves on the bench on Sunday. Wilmots also surprised many people by using Kevin De Bruyne on the right wing in the first game rather than in the middle of the park where he’d been playing most recently.

Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens both came off the bench and scored the goals that won the match with Algeria. Fellaini is a kind of ‘Plan B’ – when he’s thrown up alongside the main striker when things are not going well – and Wilmots could well decide to start with him – ‘Plan A’ – as a box-to-box midfielder and move him up into attack as necessary.

Steven Defour - could start in midfield - (copyright John Chapman).

Steven Defour – could start in midfield – (copyright John Chapman).

Wilmots has also hinted that he might reunite the Standard trio of Axel Witsel, Fellaini and Steven Defour, pointing out that Defour has looked very hungry in training. It would be no surprise if he did that and kept De Bruyne on the wing, with Mertens being available from the bench.
The other two players who might be under some pressure are Daniel Van Buyten and Romelu Lukaku but I expect them to stay in the side, despite other options at centre back and Divock Origi’s cameo role against Algeria.

Russia also struggled in their first match and Fabio Capello had to turn to substitutes to get a point against South Korea. Leading scorer Alexander Kerzhakov came off the bench to equalise and he could start against Belgium. Keeper Igor Akinfeev was at fault for South Korea’s goal but Capello is unlikely to drop someone with 69 caps.

The other talking point had been the omission of Alan Dzagoev and Russia certainly looked livelier after his introduction, he could also start.

Likely teams:

Belgium: Courtois, Alderweireld, Kompany, Van Buyten, Vertonghen; Witsel, Fellaini, Defour; De Bruyne, Lukaku, Hazard.

Russia: Akinfeev; Eshchenko. Kombarov, Faizulin, Berezoutski; Ignashevich, Samedov, Glushakov, Kokorin; Dzagoev, Kerzhakov.

Prediction: Belgium 2 Russia 1.

Jun 16

Twelve years after – Belgium are back

It’s been a long time since Belgium played their last match in a major tournament, 12 years in fact since they lost to Brazil in Kobe. Marc Wilmots had a valid goal disallowed but he’ll have forgotten that now as he focuses on taking his team as far as possible in the 2014 edition.

Wilmots is always keen to reduce expectations and is keen to point out that his squad have won nothing yet. He says the media should ask him again in eight years if the current team is the best Belgium have ever had.

Belgium team

Wilmots is not revealing his team early.

Wilmots is not revealing his team early.

Wilmots has not revealed his team for Algeria but veteran defender Daniel Van Buyten is expected to edge out Thomas Vermaelen as Vincent Kompany’s partner in central defence. Vermaelen has not looked particularly happy in training and is no doubt suffering from a season spent mainly on the bench and in the treatment room at Arsenal. The unlucky player is Zenit’s Nic Lombaerts who is always called into the squad but never seems to be considered.

Two posts are still up for grabs. In midfield, Moussa Dembélé and Marouane Fellaini have equal chances of playing in midfield between Axel Witsel and Kevin De Bruyne. Dembélé would offer more creativity but Wilmots might like Fellaini’s muscle against the Algerians. Other possibilities are Nacer Chadli and Steven Defour.

The final position where there is any doubt is wide right. It’s very close but I expect Kevin Mirallas to start rather than Dries Mertens. The latter can really change games when he comes on as a substitute – for Belgium and for Napoli – and Wilmots may prefer him in that role.

Van Buyten, Witsel, Mirallas and Vertonghen - all likely to start against Algeria. (copyright John Chapman)

Van Buyten, Witsel, Mirallas and Vertonghen – all likely to start against Algeria. (copyright John Chapman)

The player to watch for Belgium is De Bruyne. He was the key player for Belgium in the qualifying rounds, scoring four goals and having four assists. His five months spent watching Chelsea – mainly from the stands – meant that he lost form and it wasn’t until his move to Wolfsburg in January that he started to perform again. Although playing on the wing in the qualifiers, he’s recently been starting as a central playmaker – a position in which he plays as to the manner born.

Algeria

Remarkably, 16 of the Algerian squad were born in France. That doesn’t please the French Football Association as many have played for the French national youth teams before opting for Algeria. It doesn’t please some of the older Algerian fans either who prefer local players to be selected.

Algeria’s star player is Sofiane Feghouli, who is with Valance. He says he opted for Algeria as he was following his heart. He feels that others – Sami Nasri and Karim Benzema were probably in his mind – chose France for sporting reasons only. Algeria are a young side and one player with youth on his side is Spurs’ Nabil Bentaleb who has only risen to prominence in recent months.

Prediction
The match could be closer than people think and I will go for 2-1 to Belgium.

Likely teams

Belgium:
Courtois, Alderweireld, Kompany, Van Buyten, Vertonghen; Witsel, Dembélé, De Bruyne; Mirallas, Lukaku, Hazard.

Algeria:
M’Bolhi, Mandi, Bougherra, Medjani, Ghoulam; Cadamuro, Bentaleb, Taider; Feghouli, Djabou, Soudani

Some of the comments re Algeria were taken from a piece in La DH by Kevin Centorame. Thank you.

May 15

A big night for Belgian football

Another big night for Francky Dury's Zulte Waregem.

Another big night for Francky Dury’s Zulte Waregem.

Championship Playoffs
Tonight could see key moments in both the first and second division playoffs. Most eyes will be on the match at Waregem where Francky Dury’s team play Anderlecht. Other games will see second place Club Brugge go to Genk and third place Standard visit Lokeren.

If Anderlecht win tonight and on Sunday against Lokeren in Brussels, then they will be champions. That would be remarkable since it’s only a few weeks since the dark days of John Van den Brom. But it’s not certain that they will win tonight. Zulte Waregem have not lost at home for 20 matches and the occasion will be special as the home fans will want to see Thorgan Hazard play his last game for the club in a winning team.

It’s still feasible, with two games to go, for any of the top three to be champions. Even Zulte Waregem could win the title but that would require no more victories for either Anderlecht or Club Brugge.

Tonight, the younger Hazard will line up in midfield with Sven Kums, ex Heerenveen, and Olafur Skularson, who was once on Arsenal’s books. 18 year-old Theo Bongonda, a quasi-graduate of one of the many Jean-Marc Guillou academies, will be on the wing and there have been good reports of the teenager.

Anderlecht will once again have their own brand of youngsters with Young Player of the year, Youri Tielemans, Massimo Bruno and Dennis Praet, although Aleksander Mitrovic may start on the bench.

Club Brugge will be hoping Anderlecht slip up as they are level on points. They go to Genk without Timmy Simons and Jasper Jorgensen, both suspended, and Vadis Odjidja who is injured again. Eidur Gudjohnsen is likely to be called up and Waldemar Sobota will move back into midfield.

Standard suffered last weekend and might feel their chance has gone. William Vainqueur is still suspended and will be missed.

The only certain outcome tonight is that there will be surprises.

Standings after 8 games out of 10:
Anderlecht 45, Club Brugge 45, Standard 43. Zulte Waregem 41, Lokeren 34, Genk 29

Division 2 Playoffs

At the half-way stage in the division 2 playoffs – to see who is promoted – any of the four teams involved could take the prize. Eupen lead the table with six points (both away wins) from three games. Tonight they face third place Mouscron-Péruwelz. Eupen have been taken over by the Qatari Aspire academy and have been likened to Beveren of a decade ago. The average age of the team is 22 and over half of the squad have arrived from Africa.

For their part, Mouscron-Péruwelz grew out of the Mouscron club that went bankrupt and are now a feeder club for Lille. The fans don’t like that and it’s not obvious what the future holds.
Second place Leuven, with a win, a draw and a defeat so far, will want to keep their place in the top division. They have a derby at Sint-Truiden, who have one win and two defeats so far, and a home win for Standard’s feeder club – coached by Yannick Ferrera (nephew of Genk’s Emilio) – could put the cat amongst the pigeons.

Standings after three games out of six

Eupen 6, Leuven 4, Mouscron-Péruwelz 4, Sint-Truiden 3.

May 13

Official squad for Belgium in Brazil

Team captain Vincent Kompany (John Chapman copyright)

Team captain Vincent Kompany (John Chapman copyright)

Here’s the official list of 23 players (plus a possible keeper replacement) who will go to Brazil. My immediate reactions are:

a) Radja Nainggolan is the most unlucky of the players who could travel, especially as Timmy Simons is out.
b) The striking options seem limited – Divock Origi is untested; Kevin Mirallas will need to be ready to play up front.
c) The squad seems over-staffed on the right side of defence and under staffed on the left.
d) Great to see Anthony Vanden Borre make the squad after his many problems in the last few years.

Keepers (4)
Thibaut Courtois, Simon Mignolet, Silvio Proto/Koen Casteels

Defence (8)
Anthony Vanden Borre, Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Daniel Van Buyten, Nic Lombaerts, Laurent Ciman

Central midfield/wing (9)
Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, Steven Defour, Moussa Dembélé, Nacer Chadli, Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard, Adnan Januzaj,

Strikers (3)
Romelu Lukaku, Kevin Mirallas, Divock Origi

Standby (6)
Sébastien Pocognoli , Radia Nainggolan, Thorgan Hazard, Guillaume Gillet, Michy Batshuayi, Jelle Van Damme

May 13

Thoughts ahead of Marc Wilmots’ pre-selection

Vincent Kompany - captain of club and country (copyright - John Chapman)

Vincent Kompany – captain of club and country (copyright – John Chapman)

Last week I wrote extensively about Marc Wilmots’ options for Brazil. Today, he’ll announce a group of 27 – including four keepers – as a pre-selection. Given the number of certainties and ‘highly likely to travel’ candidates, it could be that a group of four or five players will be competing for a couple of places. The friendlies prior to the final announcement of 23 could be tense affairs.

As Wilmots will include four keepers, giving Koen Casteels a chance to get fit, it means that there will be only room for two players from a group that could include Timmy Simons, Radja Nainggolan, Adnan Januzaj and Igor De Camargo.

Other players that could miss out from the pre-selection include: Silvio Proto, Anthony Vanden Borre, Jelle Vossen, Michy Batsuayi and Thorgan Hazard.

See here for a full run-down on Wilmots’ options for Brazil, including young players who could be in the frame in two years’ time.

Here’s my prediction for today’s announcement – it can be seen live at www.youtube.com/belgianreddevils – 14.00 Brussels time.

Keepers (4)
Thibaut Courtois, Simon Mignolet, Colin Coosemans/Koen Casteels

Defence (8)
Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Daniel Van Buyten, Nic Lombaerts,
Sébastien Pocognoli, Laurent Ciman,

Central midfield/wing (11)
Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, Steven Defour, Moussa Dembélé, Nacer Chadli, Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard, Timmy Simons, Adnan Januzaj, Radja Nainggolan

Strikers (3)
Romelu Lukaku, Igor De Camargo, Kevin Mirallas

May 10

Wilmots’ options for Brazil

Marc Wilmots - a man who knows what he wants. (copyright John Chapman)

Marc Wilmots – a man who knows what he wants. (copyright John Chapman)

On May 13, Marc Wilmots will announce his ‘pre-selection’ of players who could go to Brazil. The final squad of 23 will be divulged to the public on June 2. Prior to the final group being announced, Belgium will play two friendlies, against Luxembourg and Sweden. After the announcement, Belgium will play Tunisia on June 7th in Brussels before leaving for Brazil.

Recently Roy Hodgson said that players had to accept that their England international careers were tied up with their club careers; Wilmots doesn’t see it entirely that way and is likely to stay loyal to the players who took him to Brazil. Obviously the pool of potential international players is smaller in Belgium than in England, and that plays a part. Furthermore, Wilmots undoubtedly doesn’t want to risk damaging the excellent atmosphere in the current squad. This will mean that players who have had a poor season will go to Brazil – as Wilmots feels he’s ll have a month with this mean and that’s time to resolve any problems – while promising youngsters will have to wait for the 2016 Euros.

Here’s a rundown on the 50 players who Wilmots might have thought about, followed by a breakdown of the certainties, probables and others. It’s an interesting list, with plenty of talented youngsters coming through.

Thibaut Courtois - number one for Atletico Madrid and Chelsea (copyright John Chapman)

Thibaut Courtois – number one for Atletico Madrid and Belgium (copyright John Chapman)

Two top-class keepers
Belgium are in the fortunate position of having two top-class keepers: Thibaut Courtois and Simon Mignolet. Courtois is the undisputed number one and it’s a matter of time before he takes over from Petr Cech at Chelsea. Last season, he was the youngest ever winner of the Zamora Trophy – awarded to the keeper with the best goals against ratio.

Courtois made an error in publicly criticising Mignolet for saying he wanted to be Belgium’s number one. Let’s put that down to youthful exuberance. As for Mignolet, he won the award of Player’s Goalkeeper of the Year (in Belgium) back in 2009-10, the year before Courtois. Now firmly established at Liverpool, Mignolet’s problem is that he’s five years older than Courtois.

That is also a problem for other youngsters such Waasland-Beveren’s Colin Coosemans, currnetly the U21 keeper, Anderlecht number two Thomas Kaminski and Hoffenheim’s Koen Casteels. All three were born a matter of months after Courtois and their future chances of making the national team seem dim.

Simon Mignolet - has been safe when selected (copyright John Chapman)

Simon Mignolet – has been safe when selected (copyright John Chapman)

The other keeper in contention – if one is needed to replace the injured Casteels, who has been given more time to get fit – is Anderlecht’s Silvio Proto. He won the award as top keeper in Belgium 10 years ago and also in the past two seasons. Proto is a great shot-stopper and has been Anderlecht’s most consistent player in the past two seasons. He can be outspoken and Wilmots might decide on a safer pair of hands for third keeper.

My feeling is that if Kaminski was with any other club but Anderlecht, he would be going to Brazil if a replacement for Casteels is required, but it would be difficult to choose Kaminski rather than Proto.

Too many centre-backs, hardly any full-backs
The lack of full-backs in the Belgian squad has been well-documented. During the qualifying games, Wilmots solved the problem by selecting centre-backs in the full back positions and that’s highly likely to be the way it goes in Brazil.

The captain of the squad, Vincent Kompany, the vice-captain Thomas Vermaelen and the next-in-line Jan Vertonghen are all first choice defenders and are certain to travel. Vertonghen is a natural centre-back but he fills in at left back and over on the right the first choice is another ex-Ajax centre back, Toby Alderweireld.

The first reserve centre-back is likely to be Daniel Van Buyten, despite his age and his lack of first-team football. Wilmots appreciates the Bundesliga, from his time there, and that will mean that Hannover’s Sébastien Pocognoli will get the nod. He’s a genuine full-back but lacks playing time at Hannover.

Daniel Van Buyten - returning to the World Cup stage after 12 years absence (copyright -John Chapman)

Daniel Van Buyten – returning to the World Cup stage after 12 years absence (copyright -John Chapman)

Another centre-back heading for Brazil is Nic Lombaerts. He’s highly rated at Zenit St Petersburg yet hardly gets a kick for Belgium. That really leaves just one place – that of reserve right back. Standard’s Laurent Ciman has had a useful season and Wilmots will appreciate the fact that he’s a loyal squad member – even though he’s a centre back by trade.

In with a shout are Anderlecht’s ‘prodigal son’ Anthony Vanden Borre. He’s a player that fans love or hate. To be fair to him, he’s been holding down a place in Anderlecht’s defence, although he looks much happier going forward.

An alternative is Club Brugge’s right back Thomas Meunier, a converted forward. Meunier had a run in a recent friendly but I’m not sure Wilmots rates him too highly. Other players who get a mention occasionally are Standard’s Jelle Van Damme and Lazio’s Luis Pedro Cavanda. Van Damme seems to be behind Pocognoli in Wilmots’ pecking order while there have been tales about Cavanda’s ‘attitude’. Not mentioned much, but one for the future is Standard centre back Dino Arslanagic (21). He also qualifies for Bosnia but my feeling is that he’ll opt for Belgium if he’s given further encouragement.

An embarrassment of riches in central midfield
If there’s one area where options abound it’s central midfield. Axel Witsel is a certainty to start every game in his usual position in front of the back four. He’s the one who sets the rhythm for the team and is Wilmots’ brains on the pitch. There will be a major problem if Witsel is not available for one reason or another. Marouane Fellaini and Steven Defour are certain to be in the party and could replace Witsel, but Wilmots sees both as box-to-box options.

Timmy Simons - a leader of men but at veteran stage - followed by Dries Mertens and Jelle Vossen. (copyright John Chapman).

Timmy Simons – a leader of men but at veteran stage – followed by Dries Mertens and Jelle Vossen. (copyright John Chapman).

The one genuine alternative defensive midfielder who looks certain to travel is Club Brugge captain Timmy Simons. Simons is 37 years-old and has 93 caps; only Jan Ceulemans has more. The vast majority of fans think he should be part of the coaching staff and many think Roma’s Radja Nainggolan should be in the squad in his place. Nainggolan can slot in to the Witsel position and also play box-to-box if needed. He’s got a big reputation in Italy but he hasn’t ever completed a full game for Belgium. That could certainly count against him.

The Spurs’ duo of Moussa Dembélé and Nacer Chadli are nailed in for Brazil and will be joined by Wolfsburg’s Kevin De Bruyne who has been showing better form recently since arriving from Stamford Bridge. De Bruyne can play ‘8’, ‘10’ and wide and he could well feature on the wing for Belgium, given the numerous options in central midfield.

Steven Defour - his image has changed a tad since the days when Sir Alex wrote to him (copyright John Chapman).

Steven Defour – his image has changed a tad since the days when Sir Alex wrote to him (copyright John Chapman).

Other contenders include Thorgan Hazard, who’s about to return to Chelsea from Zulte Waregem to discuss his future. He was keen to have a few months at Anderlecht, as he thought that would increase his chances of joining his brother in Brazil, but that wasn’t to be. He’s had two excellent seasons in the Belgian league and it’s remarkable that he talked about as a possible squad member given that two years ago he was in the Lens reserve team.

Another name that used to be mentioned frequently was Club Brugge’s Vadis Odjidja. He almost joined Everton, suffered a slump when he didn’t and was then hit by injuries, He’s now a key player in Michel Preud’homme’s team but it looks far too late for him to mount a serious challenge.

Kevin De Bruyne - one of Wilmots' untouchables (copyright John Chapman).

Kevin De Bruyne – one of Wilmots’ untouchables (copyright John Chapman).

Then there’s Dennis Praet – once Belgium’s ‘next big thing.’ Praet got caught up in the general mid-season malaise at Anderlecht and was played out of position by ex-coach John Vanden Brom who no doubt felt he was too young to shoulder the burden of playmaker. Sadly for Praet, the position of Anderlecht’s number ‘10’ seems to have gone to 16 year-old Youri Tielemans, three years younger than Praet. He’s had a brilliant – if sometimes inconsistent – first season; he’s sure to interest Wilmots when he comes to plan the 2016 Euros.

Finally, there’s Hans Vanaken, 21 but in his first season of first division football at Lokeren. Signed for second division Lommel in the summer, in many people’s eyes, Vanaken has been the stand-out player – as a playmaker – in the Belgian league this season. He seems very rounded as well, saying he’d better staying at Lokeren for another season rather than trying to move to a bigger club too soon.

Eden Hazard - the 'Oldest One'

Eden Hazard – the ‘Oldest One’

Strength in depth on the flanks

Eden Hazard needs no introduction and although he won the ‘Young Player’ of the year award in England, several ex internationals I’ve spoken to have said he’s the one who could make a difference for Belgium. He’s a special youngster but his performances for Belgium so far have lacked that vital spark.

Dries Mertens joined Napoli in the summer and immediately found himself up against José Callejón and Lorenzo Insigne. In this case, all three have been on form and Mertens has proved himself a fans’ favourite. His move to Napoli has worked really well and he’s to be congratulated.

Kevin Mirallas has proved me wrong as I was not sure if he would make it in the Premier League; I’d seen him several times for Belgium, mainly as a striker, and had not been impressed. He’s certain to make the Belgian squad though and Wilmots could see him as a striker rather than a winger given the Benteke injury. Mirallas recently said quite a lot to the press – and was rebuked by the coach – and he had time to say he didn’t see himself as a striker any longer. Time will tell.

Dembélé, Alderweireld, Pocognoli, Defour and Kompany getting ready. (copyright John Chapman)

Dembélé, Alderweireld, Pocognoli, Defour and Kompany getting ready. (copyright John Chapman)

The other top candidate for a wide position is Kevin De Bruyne, who I featured in my central midfield section. I feel number ‘10’ is his best position but Wilmots might want to use De Bruyne on the flanks so that more of his favoured central players can make the team

A new candidate, and one who has been promised a place in the pre-selection of 26/27, is Adnan Januzaj. Januzaj has recently declared his availability for Belgium and it’s fair to say he’s not been welcomed with open arms by the players. Mirallas for one said that he thought it was too soon for Januzaj to be in the squad. He’s a candidate for a wing position – although Wilmots strangely said he could play as a striker. Januzaj’s main position is central midfield – probably no. ‘10’ – but that’s for the future.

Club Brugge’s Maxime Lestienne was on many people’s minds a year ago but disciplinary problems while with the U21s and a bit of inconsistency in the latter half of the season has put paid to his chances.

PSV’s Zakaria Bakkali was the flavour of the month a year ago, even more than Lestienne, but he’s faded from the picture at his club. He’s only 18 and will come again – he needs to play football.

Axel Witsel - Belgium's most consistent performer (copyright John Chapman)

Axel Witsel – Belgium’s most consistent performer (copyright John Chapman)

Another option is Monaco’s Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco (20) and he was brilliant in the first half of the season. He’s faded too and his chances have gone. Finally, Anderlecht’s Massimo Bruno – also 20 – is another for the future. He burst on the scene last season and then lost his way as his club struggled. Bruno looked good with a cameo performance off the bench last week and he could figure in the 2016 Euros. He’s lightning fast and has an eye for goal.

A lack of top-class strikers

I have to admit that I’ve always considered Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku as works in progress and not yet top-class strikers. They have both scored regularly in the Premier League but neither has looked the real deal with Belgium.

Now Benteke is out, the spotlight is on Lukaku, I have the impression that Wilmot does not see him as the answer. He’s fine when the team is set up to counter-attack, as they were in Zagreb, but if the team needs someone to hold the ball up against a packed defence, then Lukaku might not be what’s needed.

That’s why I think Wilmots might include the experienced Igor De Camargo, who returned to Standard Liege from the Bundesliga in the summer. When Benteke was injured, many observers felt that De Camargo’s club colleague Michy Batshuayi was the obvious replacement. However, the pressure may have already got to him and recent performances indicate that De Camargo might be a better positional fit than the inexperienced Batshuayi.

Everton duo Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas - set to travel. (Copyright John Chapman)

Everton duo Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas – set to travel. (Copyright John Chapman)

Other possibilities include Genk duo Jelle Vossen and ‘Petit Pele’ Mboyo. Vossen’s been around for few years and probably needed a move away from Belgium to convince Wilmots of his prowess. Mboyo was touted as a possible option last season but he’s lost ground – and form – this season.

Apart from that, there Club Brugge’s Tom De Sutter, who thought his move to the Jan Breydel stadium might improve his chances, and Lille duo Gianni Bruno and Divock Origi. Bruno has gone on loan to Bastia and has been upstaged to an extent by Origi, 19 and a couple of years younger than his club colleague. Although Origi has his supporters for inclusion in the ‘23’, none of these three have much of a chance of selection.

Chances of going to Brazil

Certainties (18)

Thibaut Courtois – 100%
Simon Mignolet – 100%
Vincent Kompany – 100%
Thomas Vermaelen – 100%
Jan Vertonghen – 100%
Toby Alderweireld – 100%
Daniel Van Buyten – 100%
Nic Lombaerts – 100%
Axel Witsel – 100%
Marouane Fellaini – 100%
Steven Defour – 100%
Moussa Dembélé – 100%
Nacer Chadli – 100%
Kevin De Bruyne – 100%
Dries Mertens – 100%
Eden Hazard – 100%
Kevin Mirallas – 100%
Romelu Lukaku – 100%

Highly likely to travel (3)
Sébastien Pocognoli – 95%
Laurent Ciman – 80%
Timmy Simons – 95%

Probables (7)
Colin Coosemans 50%
Anthony Vanden Borre – 40%
Radja Nainggolan – 40%
Adnan Januzaj – 45%
Jelle Vossen – 40%
Igor De Camargo – 45%
Michy Batshuayi – 35%

Possibles (8)
Silvio Proto – 30%
Thomas Kaminski – 20%
Thomas Meunier – 20%
Jelle Van Damme – 5%
Luis Pedro Cavanda – 2%
Thorgan Hazard – 20%
Hans Vanaken – 15%
Maxime Lestienne – 30%

Total outsiders (14)
Koen Casteels – 10%
Mat Sels – 5%
Sammy Bossut – 5%
Vadis Odjidja – 5%
Dennis Praet – 2%
Youri Tielemans – 3%
Zakaria Bakkali – 5%
Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco – 5%
Massimo Bruno – 3%
Pele Mboyo – 10%
Tom De Sutter – 2%
Divock Origi – 5%
Gianni Bruno – 3%
Dini Arslanagic – 2%

Apr 25

Time to call time out on the Playoffs

Anderlecht fans turn up for another play-off match.

Anderlecht fans turn up for another play-off match.

A year ago I wrote the following.

“It’s been called the most exciting title race in Europe, but even those using that terminology agree that the Playoffs format falsifies the championship.”

“The games between the top clubs come so thick and fast, it can be too much – financially – for the fans, too much for the smaller squads with injuries and suspensions mounting, and finally, the final round of matches cheapen the classic season that runs from August to March. “

My views have not changed at all. Here we are half way through the playoffs and there are just four points covering the top four clubs. That’s because the points from the classic season are divided by two before the top six play off and then the teams take turns to beat each other in a frantic finish and the advantage lies with the clubs with the biggest/freshest squads.

Eighteen months ago, then Anderlecht coach John Van den Brom said that the 30 games of the ‘classic’ season were not important. Well at least he got that right.

Playoffs 1

So, for the record, the current position is
Standard 40 points, Club Brugge 39, Zulte Waregem 38*, Anderlecht 36, Lokeren 31, Genk 29*. (*played one game more).

At the end of the classic season, the position was:
Standard 67 points, Club Brugge 63, Anderlecht 57, Zulte Waregem 53, Lokeren 51, Genk 45.

So far there have been no big winners from the playoff system. Zulte Waregem, who have done remarkably with a small squad, have started dropping points. Anderlecht have improved primarily due to the division of points by two. Standard have been the big losers; they’ve not been playing well but have managed to stay at the top of the table. At the beginning of the playoffs I tipped Club Brugge and I will stay with them.

Playoffs 2

Oostende and Charleroi are the leading teams. Tomorrow, Oostende play the improving Gent and Charleroi host KV Mechelen, also showing something like better form. Remember that the winners of the Playoffs 2 play the team coming fourth in Playoffs 1 (if it’s Lokeren, I am not sure if the match goes ahead, probably not as Lokeren have already qualified for Europe).

Currently that final match (for a Europa League spot) would be Anderlecht vs Oostende or Charleroi (over two legs).

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