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Young Belgium generation may prove golden in Brazil Wilmots rises from fallback to favourite

BRUSSELS, May 6, (RTRS): Comfortable qualification and a pool of young talent that is the envy of most of Europe make Belgium among the fancied teams at the World Cup, but a lack of experience and weak finishing could cut short their progress. Bookmakers rank Belgium, playing in their first finals since 2002, as fifth favourites behind hosts Brazil, former winners Argentina and Germany, and defending champions Spain.
It is easy to see why. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is cementing his reputation at Atletico Madrid, captain Vincent Kompany shores up the back at Manchester City, a rich midfield contains the dazzling skills of Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and giant Romelu Lukaku can crush defences.

On the eve of their qualifying campaign in 2012, a Belgian newspaper calculated that in terms of transfer fees, Belgium’s starting 11 were the third most expensive in the world behind Brazil and Portugal. The depth of talent goes beyond that starting 11 and, with an average age in the mid-20s, Belgium still have plenty of scope to improve. The team’s rise in the FIFA rankings from 68th four years ago into the top 10 is the result of a squad coming of age following players’ big-money moves to foreign leagues that helped developed a tougher mentality. The turning points for the squad were the appointment of coach Marc Wilmots in May 2012 and a 4-2 friendly victory over arch-rivals the Netherlands in August of that year.

Wilmots gels better with his squad than his predecessor Georges Leekens. Belgium have ground out wins when needed and shown flashes of brilliance, such as Lukaku’s powering through the Croatia defence in October to secure Belgium’s passage to Brazil. However, recent friendlies before the finals, when the Red Devils will be in Group H with Algeria, Russia and South Korea, have been more sobering. Belgium missed good chances in their 2-0 loss to Colombia, had their defence picked apart by Japan in a 3-2 defeat and let slip a two-goal lead in March’s 2-2 draw with Ivory Coast. Hazard’s performances for Belgium are not as consistently good as those for his London club and the defence has proved shaky at times, although it was without Kompany for their two recent defeats. Belgium’s greatest challenge, though, may lie in its strike force.

Christian Benteke of Aston Villa was already blowing hot and cold, able to create goals out of nothing but also capable of missing gaping chances. His torn Achilles means Belgium will rely on Lukaku alone up front, and he has prospered since his missed penalty for Chelsea in the early season UEFA Super Cup led to a loan season at Everton. They could also take a risk with Adnan Januzaj after the Brussels-born 19-year-old Manchester United forward, eligible for several countries, committed himself to Belgium last week. Belgium also have midfielders who can find the net, notably Kevin De Bruyne, top scorer with four in qualifying, though he too lost confidence after his recall to Chelsea from loan. Following an unhappy spell, he was sold to Germany’s Wolfsburg.

Those players and others bring one positive aspect to the Belgium squad that was the case in the past — so many of the squad are playing for top teams in top European leagues. There are a trio of players at Tottenham Hotspur: Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele and Nacer Chadli. Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet is Liverpool’s No.1 choice in goal, Thomas Vermaelen is at Arsenal, Daniel van Buyten at Bayern Munich. Ultimately, however, whether Belgium can surpass their best World Cup result, fourth place in 1986, depends on their capacity to regain the form they displayed in a solid, if unspectacular, qualifying campaign.
At least their players will not be overawed by playing in front of big, passionate crowds in impressive stadiums as they deal with that every week of the season.

Few warmed to the idea of inexperienced Marc Wilmots taking charge of Belgium in 2012. Two years later, the football association and fans were begging him to stay. His status as a player is unquestioned, appearing in three World Cups in 1994, 1998 and 2002, making eight appearances and scoring five goals. He also captained the side in 2002, the last time Belgium appeared at a major championship. A dogged midfielder, dubbed “Kampfschwein” (The Fighting Pig) by fans of Schalke 04 with whom he won the UEFA Cup in 1997, Wilmots earned 70 Belgium caps and scored 29 goals. After retiring, the 45-year-old dabbled in politics and began coaching, although his first role at lowly Belgian club St Truiden lasted just eight months. The turnaround began in 2009 when Dutchman Dick Advocaat took him on as an assistant in the Belgian national team, a post he retained under Advocaat’s successor Georges Leekens, who abruptly resigned in May 2012.

Many in Belgium hoped for a high-profile appointment, such as Eric Gerets, a member of the side who reached the 1986 World Cup semi-finals and a proven manager in Germany, Turkey and France. He decided to stay as coach of Morocco, only to get sacked a few months later. Wilmots has not tinkered much with the squad he inherited, but has created a far better sense of unity than his predecessor, including among those players on the bench. Midfielder Eden Hazard walked out of the stadium to a nearby hamburger stall when substituted by Leekens during a European Championship qualifying match in 2011, an incident dubbed “burgergate”.

Under Wilmots’s guidance, Hazard has improved even if the coach is still seeking to coax him into reproducing his excellent Chelsea form more regularly for the national side. Wilmots’s teams play with more fluidity and patience, built on a confidence that they will eventually break down opponents. The coach has tweaked sides to suit particular matches, but what is not known so clearly is his ability to react to adversity.
His sides generally dictate play by taking the lead and only once have they faced a half-time deficit under Wilmots, a 1-0 defeat by England in his second match in charge. Still, Belgium clearly believe they have the right man now. Wilmots signed a four-year contract extension in April worth a reported 800,000 euros ($1.1 million) per year to make him Belgium’s highest paid coach and to keep him in charge until the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

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