It’s exactly three years to the day since I started writing this blog. Today I find myself in Zagreb with Belgium needing just one point to secure qualification for the World Cup finals. In those three years the team has been transformed. Most of today’s players were in the squad three years ago but they’ve matured greatly in that time and many have benefited from exposure in the major leagues of Europe. Marc Wilmots has also played a vital role after replacing George’s Leekens. He gives everyone a chance and he leads a squad rather than a team.
Tonight, Belgium will be without Vincent Kompany. This will be a loss both and off the pitch. Kompany has done as much as Wilmots to lead the team and he believes strongly that a successful national team can be extremely beneficial for his country. However, one player should not make a team and the squad has strength in depth. Christian Benteke is also absent but he should be back for the next game if needed.
Wilmots is not revealing his team but the main question marks are in midfield – which two will partner Axel Witsel? With Moussa Dembele unlikely to be risked, the options are Marouane Fellaini, Steven Defour, Nacer Chadli and Kevin De Bruyne. Wilmots has forecast a midfield battle so Fellaini will start. De Bruyne is likely to start on the right flank and the final midfield spot is a toss-up between Defour and Chadli. We could well see the old Standard Liege trio reunited once again.
In central defence, Daniel Van Buyten will replace Kompany and it looks like Nic Lombaerts will be preferred to Thomas Vermaelen who lacks playing time, as does Toby Alderweireld. Romelu Lukaku should get the nod upfront but on the last two occasions when Benteke has been injured, Wilmots has opted for Eden Hazard and Kevin Mirallas to replace him.
Croatia’s main chance of qualifying now lies via the playoffs but they do need a result tonight to avoid not even getting that chance. The hugely unpopular Croatian coach Igor Stimac has said he will play with three at the back while Luka Modric has stated that Croatia has more quality players than Belgium – Wilmots responded that if he said that, he must be right.
Belgium’s main sports paper (French-speaking readers) had a front page today with a banner headline of ONE POINT. Qualification will mean a lot to a country that has not qualified for a major tournament since 2002. Defeat tonight will not be a disaster and Franky Van der Elst has gone on record saying that Croatia should not be under-estimated. One point tonight though would have the 6,000 fans in Brussels’ Grand Place – and in the many towns and cities showing the game live – jumping for joy. And that can only be good for Belgium.
Belgium: Courtois; Alderweireld, Van Buyten, Lombaerts, Vertonghen; Witsel, Defour, Fellaini; De Bruyne, Lukaku, Hazard.
Croatia: Pletikosa; Lovran, Schildenfeld, Corluka; Vrsaljko, Modric, Vukojevic, Strinic; Rakitic, Mandzukic, Perisic.
Sent on the run