Wilmots has a remarkably settled squad and that means that the vast majority of names can already be pencilled in. But anything can happen between now and the end of the season and quite a few players – in Belgium and around Europe – will be wishing and hoping that one day they’ll get a call from the boss. Here’s a rundown of the contenders: certainties, strong possibilities and hopefuls included.
Thibaut Courtois and Simon Mignolet are already on the plane and studying the in-flight meal options. For the third spot, following Jean-Francois Gillet’s demise, the favourite is Hoffenheim’s Koen Casteels, who once ahead of Courtois in the Genk pecking order. The main threat would seem to come from Anderlecht’s outspoken keeper Silvio Proto.
It’s no surprise that the five certainties in defence prefer to ply their trade at centre back: Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Daniel Van Buyten and Zenit’s Nic Lombaerts.Behind these five come Hanover left back Sébastien Pocognoli, Atletico Madrid’s Toby Alderweireld and Anderlecht’s Guillaume Gillet. Pocognoli’s stock has risen since he moved to the Bundesliga, while the other two – at right back – have never been totally convincing when selected. The other problem for Alderweireld is that he has not yet broken in to the Atletico first team and this could count against him if that continues. Gillet is not a full back by nature and he’s only there because there are so few alternatives. Also worthy of mention are Standard centre back Laurent Ciman, Anderlecht’s Anthony Vanden Borre, Manchester United’s Marnick Vermijl, now on loan at NEC in the Eredivisie, and Club Brugge’s striker-turned-full-back – Thomas Meunier . Vanden Borre’s selection would be a remarkable come-back but he is the main alternative to Gillet at Anderlecht. Vermijl has said he dreams of Rio and that might be the closest he gets.
There are seven certainties in midfield, a number that highlights the amount of competition for places in that area. The seven are Axel Witsel, Moussa Dembélé, Nacer Chadli, Kevin De Bruyne, Marouane Fellaini, Steven Defour and Timmy Simons. All are certain to be on the plane to Rio, although Wilmots will be hoping that “The Happy One” does not totally destroy De Bruyne at Stamford Bridge. The young De Bruyne has arguably been the most important player during the qualifiers but he does need regular football.The case of Timmy Simons is interesting. The Club Brugge captain has huge respect from Wilmots and, I suspect, the whole Belgian squad. However, he’s 36 and the chances of him actually playing if Belgium reaches the World Cup finals are extremely slim. In the Belgian media, Stéphane Pauwels has suggested that Simons goes to Rio as an assistant coach and I’d support that move. I fear though that he would fight that to the bitter end.
Despite the fierce competition, there are several other midfield contenders hoping to get a call. Cagliari’s Radja Nainggolan would be a certainty for many national squads but he has never received much of a chance with Belgium. The box-to-box midfielder is regularly said to be on the brink of a big move to Inter or Juventus but it hasn’t happened yet. Another player of a similar age is Club Brugge’s Vadis Odjidja. His hopes of move to Everton were dashed by an administrative cock-up and he’s been hit by injuries since then. On form, he would be a valuable addition but he needs an excellent season under new coach Michel Preud’homme.
Also having hopes of a call-up will be two youngsters – Anderlecht’s Dennis Praet and Zulte Waregem’s Thorgan Hazard. Both are total outsiders with the latter having the most chance. Praet is struggling at Anderlecht and he needs a year or two of first team football.
Finally there is Adnan Januzaj. The teenage Manchester United midfielder has been getting rave reviews at Old Trafford – admittedly in the few minutes he’s played. Januzaj obviously has a fine international career ahead of him but the question is whether it will be for Belgium or Albania.
Eden Hazard and Kevin Mirallas can buy copies of the Lonely Planet Guide to Brazil. I was never a fan of Mirallas before he moved to Everton but he has proved me wrong. Dries Mertens had a great couple of seasons at PSV and then moved to Napoli. It’s too soon to write him off but he does need to start playing regularly. He’s at the check-in desk but he’s not gone through to passport control yet.
Others wishing and hoping include Club Brugge’s extremely talented winger Maxime Lestienne, assuming he keeps his hotel room locked in future, and Monaco’s precocious Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco. Both players would enhance the squad; ‘YFC’ was the stand-out performer when Belgium U21s beat Italy recently. There’s also Anderlecht’s Massimo Bruno, just turned 20, who has already played over 50 first-team games and offers strength and speed.
That leaves PSV’s Zakaria Bakkali who, rather like Januzaj, has some serious thinking to do. Wilmots selected the 17-year-old for the recent squad to play Scotland and has now told Bakkali – as he has not yet played for Belgium – that he must decide on which country he represents before the squad is chosen for the visit to Croatia. Bakkali qualifies for Belgium, Morocco and – by virtue of residence – the Netherlands. I once described Bakkali as “Maradona-esque”; he has a great future ahead of him. Rio looks to be too soon though, assuming he opts for Belgium.
Although Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku have been MOTD favourites in the last 12 months, neither of them have ever really performed for Belgium except in the odd friendly. Despite that, both are certainties to travel.
Behind them are Jelle Vossen and Ilombe Mboyo, both of Genk. Vossen is an intelligent player who scores regularly – it might work well with him behind Benteke or Lukaku but we’re unlikely to ever see that in action. Mboyo is more of a straight competitor for the big two up-front. He’s got more skill on the ball than either of them but playing in the Jupiler Pro League – and he’s unlikely to play in the Premier League any time soon – means he’s not going to get much chance to make his case.Three more strikers playing in Belgium will be dreaming for a few months more. At Standard, Igor De Camargo returned to Belgium with the avowed intention of getting back in to the Belgium Squad. Currently though he’s behind Michy Batshuayi at the club and the speedy youngster – an U21 international – is leading the league scoring charts after eight games. Finally, Tom De Sutter has gone on record as saying he’s hoping to get a call from Wilmots; he’s an honest player who could also prosper under Preud’homme at the Jan Breydel stadium.
There are 18 certainties to be named in the squad. That leaves five places. It looks like Casteels, Gillet, Pocognoli, Alderweireld and Mertens are almost certain to be named – assuming they all get some playing time at their respective clubs.
Personally I would name Simons as an assistant coach in order to free up a place and also leave out Mertens, who I think will struggle to break into the Napoli side, and Van Buyten. Five centre backs should be enough. For the three places then available, I would opt for youth in the shape of Lestienne and Ferreira-Carrasco, together with Vossen who would offer something different in attack.
Keepers: Courtois, Mignolet, Casteels
Defenders: Kompany, Vermaelen, Vertonghen, Lombaerts, Alderweireld, Gillet, Pocognoli
Midfield: Witsel, Dembélé, Chadli, De Bruyne, Fellaini, Defour
Wide: E. Hazard, Mirallas, Lestienne, Ferreira-Carrasco
Strikers: Benteke, Lukaku, Vossen