Belgium face Cyprus tonight in their final World Cup qualifying match. With tickets for Russia guaranteed, all eyes will be on Jan Vertonghen – who will become the most-capped Belgian international (97 caps) – and on the number of goals that Belgium score.
Belgium have scored 39 so far in these qualifying rounds, while the record is held by Germany who have hit 43, also in the current qualification period. Captain Eden Hazard has said the team would like to break the record.
It’s unlikely as Cyprus have only conceded 14 in nine matches, but you never know. There may be a celebratory feel about the evening with Vertonghen in the spotlight, while Hazard, Dries Mertens and Kevin De Bruyne may want to show why they’ve been included in the preliminary listing of the 2017 Ballon D’Or list.
Although Hazard has been looking extremely useful for Belgium in recent months, neither De Bruyne nor Mertens look like the players who regularly look world-class for Manchester City and Napoli respectively.
As for tonight’s team, there could be four changes from the team that won in Sarajevo. Axel Witsel returns from suspension to replace the injured Marouane Fellaini who, by all accounts, is back in Manchester. Yannick Carrasco is now suspended after picking up a yellow card last week, it could have been red, and Nacer Chadli is the favourite to come in.
Roberto Martinez does seem to favour Premier League players, so no chance for Thorgan Hazard. Assuming Martinez will continue with 3-4-3, the middle line is always more compact when Witsel is there, but De Bruyne is never totally comfortable in a deeper role for Belgium.
At the back, the word is that Thomas Vermaelen cannot play two games in five days and will be on the bench. Laurent Ciman has rarely let Belgium down and will probably slot in between Toby Alderweireld and Vertonghen. The main alternative is Dedryck Boyata but he may not be the man for a back three.
Up front, according to Martinez, Romelu Lukaku is fit again. He will start but maybe just play a half. He will be flanked by Mertens and Hazard and those two will need to be approaching their club form if the record is to be broken.
Among those who might get a run out tonight – in the second half – are Youri Tielemans, Divock Origi, Leander Dendoncker and Thorgan Hazard. Thibaut Courtois always plays 90 minutes, Michy Batshuayi may have to be content with the bench, while Steven Defour and Kevin Mirallas will continue to make up the numbers.
The elephant in the room is Radja Nainggolan. With Martinez seemingly fixed on 3-4-3, the coach feels he has no need of the Roma midfield powerhouse. It seems short-sighted as injuries are highly likely in a three-week tournament and Nainggolan would give Belgium options against teams that could over-run a team playing three at the back.
Belgium have a talented squad, although defensive concerns remain, but it would be a much stronger one if Nainggolan was brought back into the fold.