Some time ago, Robert Martinez said he was watching 54 players who could be considered to make the trip to Russia in the summer. We can now make that 33. Martinez selected a squad of 28 selected for the friendlies with Japan and Mexico. The other five, up for serious consideration, missed out through injury: Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld, Yannick Carrasco, Christian Benteke and Marouane Fellaini.
With the keeper, defence and attack selections more or less clear-cut, assuming Kompany reports fit (a big ‘if’ sadly) the main discussion points lie in midfield. Three years ago, I wrote about Marc Wilmots having an embarrassment of riches in midfield. Hardly anything has changed, with all the names in the hat now having been around since that time.
Leaving aside a late push for stardom from Dennis Praet, now settled and playing extremely well at Sampdoria, or the talented but unfulfilled youngsters Charly Musonda and Zakaria Bakkali, I reckon there are 12 ‘midfielders’ in with a chance of selection for the World Cup.
Of these, I feel Martinez will give nine the nod, meaning that three very capable footballers will not be going to Russia. So, who are the midfield runners and riders?
Thomas Meunier, Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne, Yannick Carrasco and Marouane Fellaini.
Almost on the plane (3)
Nacer Chadli, Youri Tielemans and Thorgan Hazard.
Fighting for position (4)
Moussa Dembélé, Steven Defour, Radja Nainggolan and Adnan Januzaj.
Reasons to be cheerful … or not
Looking at those who are ‘almost on the plane’, I suspect that Martinez will go for Chadli and the younger Hazard as they are able to cover several positions. As for Tielemans, he is both a Martinez favourite and part of Belgium’s future.
Nainggolan, highly respected in Serie A, needed to put in a performance for Martinez’s Belgium if he was to make up ground on Dembélé and Defour. Nainggolan’s late withdrawal from the squad through injury is a massive blow for him.
In the last few seasons, Nainggolan has been more impressive than either Defour or Dembélé. Defour says he’s back to his best form and Martinez has been impressed by his adaption to the Premier League. The ongoing fitness of Dembélé is also a concern. All three will be 30 by the time of the World Cup, so it’s now or never for them.
A lot can happen between now and the summer and some headline-making performances might just put everything back in the melting pot. I’ll look at issues in defence and attack later, but midfield is where most of the anguish will be felt.