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