Oct 13

Belgium’s midfield options as good as any other country

Belgium play Bosnia and Herzegovina tonight in Sarajevo. On paper it looks like the toughest match in the qualifying group. Last week they easily beat Andorra and now the hard work starts.

Looking at the Belgian squad, the strength lies in midfield. Even though Zenit’s Axel Witsel and Everton’s Kevin Mirallas are missing through injury, there are no less than nine candidates for five places.(Assuming: 4-2-3-1)

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

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

A couple of years ago I wrote about six of those: Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini, Spurs’ Moussa Dembélé, Napoli’s Dries Mertens, Anderlecht’s Steven Defour and Wolfburg’s Kevin De Bruyne. Since then, the midfield area has been boosted by Spurs’ Nacer Chadli – who moved to the Premier League a couple of seasons ago – Manchester United’s Adnan Januzaj and Roma’s Radja Nainggolan.

If you throw in Monaco’s Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, Borussia Monchengladbach’s Thorgan Hazard and Anderlecht duo Dennis Praet and Youri Tielemans, you could argue that by the time the 2016 Euros kick-off, the Belgium coach – and it could well be Marc Wilmots – will have 15 candidates for five places. At 27 years and 4 months, Mertens is the oldest of that group.

Steven Defour - back in the team after retruning to the Belgian league - (copyright John Chapman).

Steven Defour – back in the team after retruning to the Belgian league – (copyright John Chapman).

As well as having a high number of players to choose from, several – including de Bruyne, Witsel, Chadli and Defour – can play in a number of midfield positions. De Bruyne is happiest in the no. 10 position but he can also slot in at no 8 or on the wing. Witsel can play in front of the back four and in a more advanced role, as can Defour. Chadli has played centrally and on the flanks for Belgium.

Since the World Cup finals, Belgium’s options have been boosted by the – some would say late – arrival of Nainggolan in the squad. Since his high-profile move to Roma, he’s been a little more on Wilmots’ radar but it wasn’t enough to get him in to the squad for Brazil.

Nainggolan is another versatile midfielder, capable of playing box-to-box or sitting in front of the back four. The Roma team is quite capable of winning the Scudetto and if it does it would not be a complete surprise if Nainggolan was named Player of the Year. But that’s just supposition; the fact is simply that Belgium’s squad is now much stronger with a warrior such as Nainggolan in the frame.

As for tonight’s game, Defour and Nainggolan will sit in front of the back four with De Bruyne in a more advanced role. Despite Eden Hazard hardly ever playing well for his country, he returns on the wing and surprisingly Lille’s Divock Origi, on loan from Liverpool, comes in on the wing. My money would have been on Chadli staying in the team with Origi in the middle.

The team is therefore: Courtois, Alderweireld, Kompany, Lombaerts, Vertonghen; Nainggolan, Defour, de Bruyne; E. Hazard, Lukaku, Origi.

Sep 04

Belgium says farewell to two top men

Club Brugge's Timmy Simons - leading from the front ( Copyright John Chapman)

Club Brugge’s Timmy Simons – leading from the front ( Copyright John Chapman)

Before the match with Australia, two of Belgium’s most-capped players, Timmy Simons and Daniel Van Buyten, will get a chance to say farewell to the fans and for supporters to say thank you for a job well done.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have long been an admirer of Simons. He’s been a great servant for Lommel, Club Brugge, PSV and Nuremburg. He’s captained most of those clubs and is now winding down his career in a second spell at Club Brugge. At the end of the season, Simons will join the coaching staff at the Jan Breydel stadium and it would be no surprise if one day he became a top coach, perhaps of the national team. Simons has played 93 games for Belgium and only Jan Ceulemans has played more.

Daniel Van Buyten - final training before Brazil (copyright John Chapman)

Daniel Van Buyten – final training before Brazil (copyright John Chapman)

Neither Simons nor Van Buyten could be described as particularly gifted players, but both have made the most of their abilities. They always gave 100% for club and country and Van Buyten in particular looked more comfortable playing for the national team at the end of his career than he did at the beginning. It was sad to see Van Buyten often criticised by the Flemish press in his younger days but that is a price that sometimes has to be paid by Belgian players. Van Buyten played for Charleroi, Standard, Marseilles, Hamburg and Bayern Munich and was wanted – as was Simons – by Anderlecht in recent times. Van Buyten played 85 times for his country and was one of the top performers in Brazil.

Both players were in the Belgium 2002 World Cup squad in Japan and South Korea. Both will be missed.

Belgium’s most-capped players

1. Jan Ceulemans 96
2. Timmy Simons 93
3. Eric Gerets 86
4. Franky Van der Elst 86
5. Daniel Van Buyten 85
6. Enzo Scifo 84
7. Paul Van Himst 81
8. Bart Goor 78
9. George Grün 77
10. Lorenzo Staelens / Marc Wilmots 70

14. Vincent Kompany 64
19. Jan Vertonghen 62
21. Moussa Dembélé 59
26. Marouane Fellaini 56
33. Axel Witsel 53
36. Eden Hazard 51

Sep 03

Belgium’s return marred by off-the-field strife

It’s difficult to know where to start when writing about the Belgium team ahead of tonight’s friendly match with Australia. So much has been happening off the pitch since the World Cup, it’s not easy to say much about the forthcoming game that is at all relevant.

For the past couple of years, the Belgium team have been climbing up the FIFA rankings, which are not particularly relevant either, with the result that – certainly at the World Cup – they were many people’s favourite second team.

The performances in Brazil probably lost the team quite a few admirers. Despite reaching the quarter finals, they only showed any semblance of form when they beat the USA in the one match that got people on the edge of their seats.

Captain Kompany - strong man in the set-up but could be missing from the action again.

Captain Kompany – strong man in the set-up but could be missing from the action again.

Marc Wilmots came in for a fair amount of criticism for his tactics, or rather a lack of them, but that shouldn’t have come as a surprise as he’s new to the coaching game. He’s continually refused to admit he needs someone to help him on the tactical side, saying that most of his players are experienced and, for example, don’t need advice on how to take corners or free-kicks.

Since Brazil, however, stories have started appearing in the media about dissent in the camp. It’s said that senior players, not named of course, are not happy and feel they need a more experienced and tactics-savvy man at the helm. At the same time, reports say that Wilmots has the full support of Vincent Kompany. If true, that should be enough to keep him in his job for the moment.

During the World Cup, media stories appeared saying that, again, senior players were not happy that Kompany was being accorded preferential status. The captain avoided appearing at press conferences, always being replaced at the last moment, and was not available to speak to the national press. When he was uncertain to play, no one in the squad knew until the last minute if he would appear and Wilmots said that the decision would be left entirely to the player.

It’s unlikely that Wilmots would say that about anyone else. Indeed, the coach’s great strength has been that he’s not bowed down to ‘stars’, even though almost the whole squad are with Premier League clubs and earning a fortune, far more then Wilmots himself.

Unfortunately, the problems don’t lie solely with Wilmots and the squad. In parallel to the stories about dissatisfaction in the camp, there have been reports about total incompetence off the pitch. The focus has been on the famous hotel reservations for WAGS which, after Wilmots said – before the tournament – that they were not welcome, were not cancelled by the Football Association. The bill came to 300,000 euros. Assuming that there had to be a finite number of wives, that left room for an awful lot of girlfriends.

Then there was the infamous ‘camp’ set up for supporters by the Belgian FA in Brazil. Conditions were said to be deplorable and complaints have been received at the FA’s ‘Glass House’ in Brussels.

Axel Witsel will have more freedom tonight. (copyright John Chapman)

Axel Witsel will have more freedom tomorrow night. (copyright John Chapman)

Furthermore, senior members of the Belgium FA, led by CEO Steven Martens, are apparently entitled to bonuses based on the squad’s performances. Added to that is the speculation that the bonuses were agreed by a committee that included Martens himself.

As for the players, many fans – especially younger ones – will feel let down by the team’s refusal to return home to a hero’s welcome. During the World Cup, support for the team was at a fever pitch and the whole country came to a standstill when the team played. Even before the team left for Brazil, some 20,000 fans had watched training sessions.

One can understand that the players were disappointed not to at least reach the semi-finals but to snub the fans – as they apparently did – in saying no to a ‘welcome home’ party fans showed a lack of judgement at many levels.

In the event, the players made a half-hearted appearance on the balcony of the Hotel de Ville[1] in the famous Grand Place in Brussels; however, that was only after an intervention by Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo. Before Brazil, comparisons had been made with the triumphant scenes in the Grand Place back in 1986, when Belgium had – somewhat fortuitously it has to be said – reached the semi-finals. Back in 1986 though, the players were simply footballers, this generation are multi-millionaires.

Radja Nainggolan - he should get 30 minutes tomorrow at least.

Radja Nainggolan – he should get 30 minutes tomorrow at least.

Against this background, the match with Australia pales somewhat into insignificance. Today’s news was that Kompany has a calf injury and is unlikely to play. That would be no surprise as the captain has only played in four of the past 11 friendly matches.

Prior to that Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, who probably wouldn’t have started, both withdrew from the squad. With Thomas Vermaelen and Marouane Fellaini out injured and with Daniel Van Buyten having hung up his boots, there will be a few new faces on view – certainly when the substitutes start appearing.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect on the sporting front is Wilmots’ acknowledgement that Zenit’s Axel Witsel will have a freer role. After a couple of seasons keeping guard in front of the back four, Wilmots has said that he will share that duty tomorrow with Anderlecht’s Steven Defour (4-2-3-1). If things go awry though, Wilmots has said he’ll revert to the standard set-up.

Apart from that, it was good to see Wilmots say that Roma’s Radja Nainggolan will get 30 minutes, although he’s worth more than that.

Next Sunday, the Belgian FA have organised a Fan Day … in Ostend.  That’s met with some criticism from those in the south of the country and after the refusal to meet the fans when the team returned from Brazil, there’s a feeling that this is too little, too late.

 

[1] I’ve used Hotel de Ville and Grand Place as Brussels is primarily French-speaking. In Dutch, the equivalents are Stadhuis and Grote Markt.

Jul 25

The Jupiler Pro League is back to little applause

I’ve been watching Belgian football for many years. I don’t like criticising it but with the league season starting today, I’m in a negative mood.

Vincent Komapny - graced the Belgian league for a few years (copyright - John Chapman)

Vincent Komapny – graced the Belgian league for a few years (copyright – John Chapman)

I’ve seen some top players and great characters in the Belgian league: Pär Zetterberg, Walter Baseggio, Gert Verheyen, Jan Koller, Timmy Simons, Vincent Kompany, Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois and many more.

Last year I was concerned when Thorgan Hazard won the ‘Golden Shoe’. He’s a good player, I have no doubt about that; but when a 20-year old with two years’ experience and no international caps (except for a friendly) is the best player in the country, then alarm bells start to ring.

If anything, the quality of the league has dropped compared to last season. Anderlecht’s Massimo Bruno had departed, as has Standard’s Michy Batshuayi. Genk’s Jelle Vossen looks likely to follow them, while Club Brugge’s Maxime Lestienne and Thomas Meunier are itching to leave but have no takers – a different kind of worry.

It’s not the clubs’ fault that players want to leave for greener pastures and they can’t be blamed when players like Adnan Januzaj and Charly Musonda Jr. pack their kit-bags and catch the Eurostar aged just 15.

Countries like Belgium do deserve some sympathy as their clubs struggle on with small budgets – 11 of the 16 clubs in the first division have a budget of less than 10 million euros – low salaries that can’t attract even average international players, and the consequential miniscule TV rights.

Anderlecht's Massimo Bruno - has moved to Austria.

Anderlecht’s Massimo Bruno – has moved to Austria.

However, if this was a game of poker, then the Belgian league, while having been dealt some bad cards, has been playing them very badly.

The clubs have been guilty of introducing and prolonging the inequitable playoff system. It’s now being rolled out for the fifth time. This renders the league games prior to the playoffs practically meaningless. All points gained are halved when the classic season ends so a defeat means the loss of 1 ½ points!

It’s universally recognised therefore that the season only gets underway on April 4, 2015, when the top six go into the battle. And it’s not too difficult to forecast who that will be.

Lucas Biglia - went from Anderlecht to the World Cup final. (copyright John Chapman)

Lucas Biglia – went from Anderlecht to the World Cup final. (copyright John Chapman)

Furthermore, as the season has to be extended to fit in the extra playoff matches – 10 games per club – it has to start earlier. Today!

So there will be five weeks of the league prior to the transfer window closing. Almost all of the top clubs have said they are not ready for the season to start and with the transfer window open, any good players are more likely to leave than arrive.

In one sense it doesn’t matter as the clubs are only playing for 1 ½ points for the first eight months – there are no six-pointers in Belgium. April 4th may be a long way away but the feeling is that the local fans are being short-changed. They don’t pay the extravagant prices that exist in the Premier League and perhaps Belgian fans prefer to watch MOTD with a couple of Leffe Blondes at hand.  But when you think back to the days of Enzo Scifo, Michel Preud’homme, Frankie Vercauteren, Robbie Rensenbrink and Luc Nilis, you have to admit that it’s all gone sadly wrong.

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.

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