Belgium have not qualified for a major tournament since 2002 and have rarely started any of the subsequent campaigns with a victory. They overcame that hurdle on Friday night with a professional performance against Wales in Cardiff. They’ll need to be much sharper against Croatia but they’ll have 45,000 Belgians behind them, believing that this could be the start of something big.Tonight’s team is likely to show two changes from the one that took the points in Cardiff. Porto’s Steven Defour is certain to replace Tottenham’s recently recruited Moussa Dembélé, with the ex-Standard Liege captain set to have a man-marking role on Luca Modric. This means that the Belgian midfield will reunite the former Standard Liege trio – Defour, Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel – that took Les Rouches to their first Belgian title for 25 years in 2008. The other change will see Aston Villa’s raw new boy Christian Benteke come in, rather than the not quite fit Romelu Lukaku, for Everton’s Kevin Mirallas. Marc Wilmots has said he wants a ‘big striker’ up front against Croatia and Mirallas has never convinced in a lone striker role for Belgium.
For the rest, Atletico Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois is now the undisputed national team keeper, Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen will again be united in central defence – for only the second time in 18 months – while Eden Hazard and PSV’s Dries Mertens will aim to bring speed, creativity and explosiveness from the flanks.
Croatia arrive in Belgium after a workmanlike 1-0 victory over Macedonia in Zagreb. They have a new coach in Igor Štimac and it appears he’s not yet convinced either the fans or the players. Replacing the popular Slaven Bilić was never going to be easy and local freelance journalist Alex Holiga – ex editor-in-chief of the now-defunct FourFourTwo Croatia and regular writer for Tportal.hr – says Štimac is a totally different character than the previous coach and that it’s not clear that the players will gel under the new management.Holiga reasons that there are two leaders on the park, Shakhtar Donetsk’s Darijo Srna – an attacking full-back – and Real Madrid’s Luka Modrić. The ex-Spurs playmaker is one of the most creative players in world football but Holiga feels he’s not 100% fit and that this currently lessens his mobility. Other players to watch are Borussia Dortmund’s Ivan Perišić, who had a couple of seasons in Belgium at Club Brugge (he was the league’s leading goalscorer in his final season) and Everton striker Nikica Jelavić. The Everton man – who strangely also had a season in Belgium with Zulte Waregem – is likely to replace Shakhtar Donetsk’s Eduardo.
Finally, Lokomotiv Moscow’s Vedran Ćorluka is unlikely to start – and Štimac seems to be rather dismissive of his fitness – and could be replaced by Dynamo Zagreb’s Domagoj Vida. Holiga also highlights one for the future who will probably start on the bench: Hajduk Split teenager Josip Radosevic, who has only played 14 senior games but could nail down a position in the national team, in front of the back four, for years to come.
The stage is therefore set for what could be a cracking game of football. If Belgium win tonight, they’ll move up to 23rd (from 40th) in the FIFA rankings; but as I’ve said before, there’s always a ‘but’ with Belgium.
Note: You can follow Alex Holiga on twitter – @AlexHoliga