There have never been so many Belgians in the Premier League. It’s a boom time but the 2016 Euros are fast approaching and young guns in Belgium, France, Germany and Spain – and even in the Premier League itself – will be battling for a place in Marc Wilmots’ squad.Wilmots has been notoriously loyal to his players, too loyal in some cases. An example in point was the omission of Radja Nainggolan from the World Cup squad last summer. But the competition for places has never been so intense. The areas where established Premier League players will feel the most pressure are in midfield and on the wing. Let’s have a look at the situation in those areas.
In midfield, the spotlight will be on Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Thorgan Hazard (22) and Anderlecht’s Youri Tielemans (18). Both players can bring some extra creativity to the Belgian squad. The younger Hazard – at 22 he’s probably a little old to be called a ‘young gun’ – has been given the no. 10 shirt at Mönchengladbach but he needs to firmly cement his place in the side before he thinks about joining up with the more famous Eden. His move to Mönchengladbach has been made ‘permanent’ and he’s certainly been toughened up in the Bundesliga. He’s already achieved much more than I thought he would do. He’s not a copy of the Chelsea man and I see him as more of a central midfield player, rather like Kevin De Bruyne at Wolfsburg.As for Tielemans, he’s talented and a good season for Anderlecht might just see him make the squad for the Euros even if it is just for the experience. First though, Anderlecht need to decide on their best side and how Tielemans fits into it. Tielemans has not received the no. 10 shirt at Anderlecht as that went to Dennis Praet. It would be no surprise to me if Praet moved on but I feel he’d struggle in a bigger league. Tielemans, however, is still only 18 and has already played over 80 games for Anderlecht. He’s more likely than Praet to make the international grade and to make the squad for the 2018 World Cup. Playing in Belgium won’t help his cause but the boy has time on his side.
The player most under pressure is Spurs’ Moussa Dembélé. Of the established midfield players, Dembélé was the one who achieved the least last season. He had a relatively poor time with Spurs and is far from the player who Martin Jol once described as “probably the best no. 10 in the Premier League”.
Looking at the wide players, the pressure on the established men is coming from Atletico Madrid’s Yannick Ferreira Carrasco. Aged 21, he’s another one of the squad who has never played in the Belgian League. He made his debut for Monaco a couple of years ago and established himself in the first team last season. He did enough to gain a move to Spain and he has already played three games for Belgium. Ferreira Carrasco is already in the squad and is likely to stay there.The emergence of Ferreira Carrasco means that Everton’s Kevin Mirallas needs to up his game. Rather like Dembélé, Mirallas has been resting on his laurels for some time. It also looks like he’s been angling for a move – as everyone wants to play in the Champions League – but on current form, no one is likely to play the asking fee for the Everton man. And we shoudn’t forget Adnan Januzaj who could also be a contender if he gets significant playing time at Old Trafford or elsewhere. And if Wilmots continues, unwisely, to see De Bruyne as a wide-man, Mirallas could have problems when the squad for France is announced. (Ed: Assuming they make it).
What about the rest?
Up front, there are two young players aiming to make a claim. The first is Michy Batshuayi (21), currently with Olympique Marseille. As a youth-team player, Batshuayi had a reputation as being ‘hard to handle’. Anderlecht released him and he eventually emerged at Standard Liege. His career there was of the stop-start variety but his obvious talent shone through (40 goals in 95 games) and he would probably have gone to Brazil, if he hadn’t looked for individual glory rather than playing for the team just before the squad for Brazil was selected.
In the event, he left Standard and joined Marseille. In his first season he was usually on the bench with André-Pierre Gignac taking the main striker’s role. After Gignac’s somewhat surprising move to Mexico, to Tigres UANL, Batshuayi looks to have a big opportunity to be a major player in Ligue 1. There are clouds hovering over Marseille however as the club was in turmoil even before the surprise resignation of Marcelo Bielsa. He’d given Batshuayi solid support and was also a much-needed firm-hand.
The other youngster in the frame is Christian Benteke’s colleague at Liverpool, Divock Origi (20). Origi hit the headlines when he went to Brazil as a relative unknown, replacing the injured Benteke. He even became the first choice striker at the World Cup and this gained him a transfer to Anfield. It was probably too soon, and his subsequent loan period back at Lille was a not a success. Ironically, Benteke’s move to Liverpool has made it more difficult for Origi but he’s versatile and a solid first season at the club could mean he keeps his place in the squad. Like Batshuayi, Origi is fast and has
Here are 33 players who will fancy their chances – in some cases slim – of making the squad for the 2016 Euros.
Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Jean-François Gillet (KV Mechelen), Matz Sels (Gent).
Nicolas Lombaerts (Zenit Saint-Pétersbourg), Vincent Kompany & Jason Denayer (Manchester City), Toby Alderweireld & Jan Vertonghen (Spurs) Laurent Ciman (Montreal Impact), Laurens De Bock & Thomas Meunier (Club Brugge), Olivier Deschacht (Anderlecht), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona)
Radja Nainggolan (AS Roma), Moussa Dembélé & Nacer Chadli (Spurs), Kevin De Bruyne (Wolfsburg), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Axel Witsel (Zenit), Dennis Praet, Youri Tielemans & Steven Defour (all Anderlecht), Thorgan Hazard (Mönchengladbach)
Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco (Atletico Madrid), Adnan Januzaj (Manchester United), Dries Mertens (Napoli), Kevin Mirallas (Everton)
Romelu Lukaku (Everton), Divock Origi & Christian Benteke (Liverpool), Michy Batshuayi (Marseille).