The Belgium squad is one of the most talented in world football at an individual level. They haven’t got the results yet and in parts that’s due to a lack of full backs and a dearth in international-class strikers. Added to that, Belgium has a habit of seemingly dominating opponents and then conceding sloppy goals. Here’s the squad as it stands plus one or two others who are, as Vincent Kompany recently said on the BBC, “there or thereabouts”.
Belgium are well served in this area with Sunderland’s Simon Mignolet being seen as the current number one. He’s been consistent in the Premier League and has not let his country down; in a recent fans poll, however, 85% opted for Atletico Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois – on loan from Chelsea – as their preferred keeper. Courtois’ story is remarkable – two seasons in top flight football and he’s won the Belgian championship with Genk and the Europa League (final). In addition, there’s the highly-rated – but having to settle for third keeper spot – Bologna keeper Jean-Francois Gillet. In addition, Anderlecht keeper Silvio Proto is talented and consistent but he informed Georges Leekens that he did not want to be in the squad and sit in the stands. KV Mechelen’s Oliver Renard has joined the squad due to injury.
A major weakness in the squad; Leekens overcame this by playing central defenders out of position. The best two genuine backs are Anthony Vanden Borre (on the right) and Standard Liege’s Sebastien Pocognoli (on the left). Unfortunately, Vanden Borre has constant problems, battling with his own personality, and Pocognoli has been consistently overlooked by Leekens. Vanden Borre is an enigma; he seemed to have rebuilt his career with Racing Genk last season, only for it to all go wrong after Christmas. Now he’s leaving the club by mutual consent. Pocognoli is a useful performer and Philippe Albert once stated that he would have been a regular had he still been playing for AZ. Other options are Anderlecht’s Denis Odoi (too raw) and Guillaume Gillet from the same club (he hates playing full back). And that’s it! Usually, Ajax centre backs Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen fill in.
Contrary to full back, the centre back position is one where Belgium excels. Top of the pile is Kompany who needs no introduction. Next in line are the ex-Beerschot and soon to be ex-Ajax duo of Thomas Vermaelen and Vertonghen. It’s remarkable that a player as good as Vertonghen struggles to play for his country in his club position. Vertonghen is versatile though and sometimes that can count against a player. In addition to those three, Belgium can call upon Bayern Munich’s Daniel Van Buyten (a favourite of Leekens), Zenit’s Nic Lombaerts (Russia’s foreign player of the year) and Ajax’s Alderweireld. The Ajax duo Vertonghen and Alderweireld were tried together against Montenegro and it was not a success. Wilmots is on record as saying his preferred pairing is Kompany and Vermaelen.
Leekens liked experience and recalled Nuremberg’s Timmy Simons for this role. I have a soft spot for the ex-PSV skipper but he really is nearing the end of his international career, despite being one of the fittest players in Europe. I suspect Simons has only missed a handful of games in his career. However, the baton has to be passed on and the nearest to Simons in the squad is Cagliari’s tough-tackling Radja Nainggolan. More or less unknown in Belgium until about six months ago, Nainggolan is said to be on the verge of a move to Juventus. His international experience, however, is a matter of minutes so far. Currently in the driving seat is Everton’s Marouane Fellaini. He’s a problem though as Fellaini finds it hard to anchor himself in front of the back four. One alternative is Porto’s Steven Defour, who dropped back in the Standard Liege midfield when Fellaini moved to the Premier League.
Benfica’s Axel Witsel is one of the first names to be pencilled in by any Belgian national coach. He’s come out of Defour’s shadow, can be creative and he has a great engine. Fellaini could be pushed up further in midfield, as could Defour. The new man in central midfield is Chelsea’s Eden Hazard. He played there in a 4-3-3 formation against Montenegro but there would be a danger of the midfield being overrun against a top-flight international team. Another option is Fulham’s Moussa Dembélé who Martin Jol said could be one of the best no. 10s in the Premier League. Anderlecht’s Gillet also prefers playing in midfield.
There are a few options here as well. PSV’s Dries Mertens is probably the most talented wide man. Mertens has an eye for goal and scored a hatful for PSV last season. Next in line is Twente’s Nacer Chadli, a fast and strong winger who could also be heading for London in the near future. Hazard and Dembélé have also featured on the flanks for Belgium in the Leekens era. Olympiakos’ Kevin Mirallas (player of the year in Greece) prefers to play wide but was used mainly in the problem striker position under Leekens.
No one stands out from the crowd here. Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku was thought to be the answer but he’s gone from teenage sensation to Chelsea benchwarmer, if he’s lucky. Monchengladbach’s Igor De Camargo is not international class and Genk’s Christian Benteke, although showing promise, is far from being the finished article. His Genk colleague Jelle Vossen also lacks that touch of class essential to go up a level; Mirallas looks good but is not happy playing centrally. Lokeren’s Benjamin De Ceulaer is in the squad but is nowhere near selection.
It may be a surprise for many but Chelsea’s Kevin De Bruyne is not a regular squad member. So far he’s featured a handful of times but has yet to play 90 minutes. De Bruyne played most of his Genk career wide left but recently moved into the centre with great effect. He is a genuine playmaker who could be an alternative to Witsel or Defour. Another option in the future will be Club Brugge’s Vadis Odjidja, another box-to-box player who can be creative or play in a more defensive role. Finally, Standard’s captain Jelle Van Damme would be an impressive addition to the squad but, like Proto, he has said he’s not keen to join the team only to watch the matches from the stands.