Marc Wilmots is popular with fans, players and the media. So far he has not put a foot wrong and he’s on record as saying four points from the two games would not be a disaster, adding that he would be aiming for six. Spurs’ Jan Vertonghen is the only player not to have missed a minute for the national team since Wilmots took over. Four others have not missed any time in the four qualifiers to-date: Atletico Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois, Arsenal skipper Thomas Vermaelen, Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany and Zenit’s Axel Witsel. The team will miss Kompany, who’s certainly not fit, and it’s time for players such as Witsel, Vertonghen and Vermaelen to step up to the plate in terms of leadership.Back in June, I wrote that the Belgium squad hadn’t got the results yet, “in parts due to a lack of full backs and a dearth in international-class strikers.” That my sound odd today, given that the squad contains Vertonghen, Villa’s Christian Benteke and WBA’s Romelu Lukaku. In truth though, Vertonghen would probably be the first to say he would prefer to be at centre back while Benteke and Lukaku, while achieving much more than was expected in such a short timeframe, have still got it all to prove internationally.
With these two important matches coming up at the weekend, it’s time to have a look at the current squad.
Courtois – heir apparent to Chelsea’s Peter Cech – is the number one keeper. His record is remarkable – he’s in his third season in top flight football and he’s won the Belgian championship, the Europa League and his team currently has the best defensive record in La Liga. Sunderland’s Simon Mignolet is the unlucky number two, unlucky as never let his country down. In addition, there’s the highly-rated Torino keeper Jean-Francois Gillet.
Full backsThe two first choices are both centre backs: Ajax’s Toby Alderweireld and Vertonghen. The latter is a class act, a leader and is excellent going forward. Alderweireld is solid defensively but adds little to the team’s attacking options. With Anderlecht’s Guillaume Gillet injured, the back-up on the right is Standard’s Laurent Ciman, ironically another centre back. On the left, the squad contains Hanover’s Sebastien Pocognoli and Standard captain Jelle Van Damme. It’s fair to say that Pocognoli has more chance of a place in the team now he’s left Standard for the Bundesliga; Van Damme is a force of nature and would not let the team down if needed.
Number one centre back is Kompany but there’s no way he will be fit for Friday. Vermaelen has been making headlines in the UK tabloid press as he’s apparently been told he’s not sure of his place at Arsenal. Regardless of all that, Wilmots has faith in him and he will line up alongside Bayern Munich’s Daniel Van Buyten. The veteran has been having an excellent season in the Bundesliga, although the Bayern defence probably hasn’t been tested too much. Zenit’s Nic Lombaerts has dropped out through injury, so backup now comes from the abovementioned ‘full-backs’.
Witsel is a favourite of Wilmots and will be given the job of patrolling the area in front of the back four and directing operations to an extent. Alternatives are Nuremberg’s Timmy Simons – a player earmarked to join Belgium’s coaching team if he ever retires – and Porto’s Steven Defour, who dropped back in the Standard Liege midfield when Marouane Fellaini moved to the Premier League. Defour’s career seems to be going backwards at the moment and he certainly upset the Porto management last week.
Candidates here are Fellaini, Spurs’ Moussa Dembélé and Werder Bremen’s Kevin de Bruyne. The last-named is the player who has made the biggest advance in the past nine months. Last June, De Bruyne was not even sure of his place in the squad but he’s now seen as one of the pillars in midfield. Dembélé has also made impressive strides and is highly rated by Wilmots. De Bruyne and Dembélé both work hard and they have the edge creatively over Fellaini. ‘Big Mo’ has rarely excelled for Belgium and he’s never been seen as an auxiliary striker in the national team – a position he’s made famous in the Premier League. He lost points a few months ago when he said he was tired after turning up to play for Belgium.
There are multiple options here. Chelsea’s Eden Hazard will become the youngest player (at 22 years and 74 days) to be capped 35 times for Belgium. Despite that he has played very few decent games for the national team. He’s happier playing for Wilmots though, and hopefully his form will improve. PSV’s Dries Mertens has lots of talent and an eye for goal but he may lose out to Everton’s Kevin Mirallas who was used as a striker by Leekens but is happier playing wide. Next in line is Twente’s Nacer Chadli, a fast and strong winger who could also be heading for London in the near future. Chadli has just returned from injury.
StrikersThere’s been movement here with WBA’s Romelu Lukaku and Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke both exceeding my expectations in the past six months. Both have been scoring regularly and both deserve the praise they’ve been receiving. Benteke is the one more likely to start in Skopje; he has a shade more experience and is better at holding the ball up. I think any talk of them both playing can be shelved as Wilmots like a 4-3-3 and he has a plethora of midfield options. Genk’s Jelle Vossen is the backup up front and he’s a player who could well do well in a bigger league in the not-too-distant future.
I reckon Wilmots will go 4-3-3 or rather a 4-1-2-3, as follows: Courtois, Alderweireld, Van Buyten, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Witsel; Dembele, De Bruyne; Mirallas, Benteke, Hazard
If he feels the match could be a bit of a fight, he could throw in Fellaini instead of De Bruyne.