Belgium U21s visit Middlesbrough’s Riverside stadium tonight to play England in a 2013 European Championships qualifying match. Over 20,000 tickets have been sold and the place should be rocking. I was in Mons in November for the first game, when Belgium staged a ‘smash and grab’ victory, and I remember thinking – apart from how cold it was – how physically powerful the English players were in comparison to their Belgian counterparts.
A lot has changed since then on the Belgian side: coach Francky Dury has gone back to league football with his previous club Zulte Waregem, the Mons match winner, Brescia’s Omar El Kaddouri, has decided that his football future lies with Morocco and there have been a number of injuries and withdrawals – most notably to Gent’s Yassine El Ghanassy, Club Brugge’s Maxime Lestienne and Cercle Brugge’s Gregory Mertens.
One player well known to English fans will be Bolton’s Dedryck Boyota, on loan from Manchester City, who missed the last game. He’s looking forward to tonight’s match as he made his debut for the Sky Blues at the Riverside. Other players worth following are Ziguy Badibanga (with Graafschap, on loan from Anderlecht), Genk striker Christian Benteke, Lille’s Gianni Bruno, Lokeren’s Nill De Pauw, Club Brugge’s Thomas Meunier and keeper Koen Casteels of Hoffenheim.
Benteke in particular will not be physically overawed as he’s got a similar build to Romelu Lukaku, who’s in Greece – on the bench – with the senior side. Benteke has scored eight goals in his last nine games for Genk; even so, home fans are not convinced as the boy does miss quite a few. Badibanga caused England problems last time, as did Bruno who is a natural goal scorer. Also in the squad is Anderlecht’s other Lukaku – Jordan – a full back, who is unlikely to start. Personally I was disappointed that Stoke City’s Florent Cuvelier, on loan at Walsall, did not make the squad. He’s been earning rave reviews at his new club and it would have been great to see him pitched in against the mainly Premiership youngsters of England.
Both sides have caretaker coaches; Brian Eastick has replaced Stuart Pearce, who has duties elsewhere, while Jean-François Remy is looking after Belgium, as new coach Johan Walem is not yet on board. It’s also good to see Phil Neville involved with England.
England are 4/9 favourites tonight as Belgium have not travelled well so far. Liverpool’s Martin Kelly was impressive in Mons and Newcastle’s Sammy Ameobi had some good touches. To be honest, with Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Josh McEachran (if he’s there) the side looks pretty solid. The striking duties could go to Sunderland’s Connor Wickham and Bolton’s Marvin Sordell. Wickham is the bookies’ favourite to score first; I wonder what price Benteke is? Anyway, below is the table to-date, all teams have played five games, except Norway. The group winners and best runners-up go forward to playoffs and then eight teams will be in the finals in 2013 in Israel.
Current standings: England 12 points; Belgium 8; Norway 7; Azerbaijan 4; Iceland 3.