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Belgium right now are the flavour of the moment. Their players are peppering the top leagues in Europe – mainly the Premier League.
And they have qualified for the World Cup at a canter in a group where they were actually seeded second behind Croatia. Many are tipping them for big things in Brazil next year, but we ask: are they really as good as the hype suggests?
Belgium, it should be remembered, has a proud footballing history despite a poor recent history.
I grew up knowing players such as Jan Ceulemans, Franky Van der Elst, Eric Gerets, Preud’homme, and then later the wonderfully talented Enzo Scifo, Phillipe Albert and Luc Nilis.
Belgium pushed all the way during England’s run to the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup, and the likes of Anderlecht have a proud European club history.
After a lengthy hiatus, Belgium are back with a team that looks hugely exciting and full of talent. We have been here with other nations, and talks of a ‘golden generation’ can often be hugely overdone – especially if you follow England (which I don’t).
Recent golden generations that have succeeded are France (WC ’98 and EC ’00) and Spain (EC ’08, WC ’10, EC ’12). They are big shoes for the Belgians to fill, especially as they seem to be coming from much further back than either of those nations.
While many of the players look to be of genuine quality, they do lack any tournament experience.
And, like all the European teams, they face the daunting prospect (more daunting, one would guess, for the northern ones) of competing in South America where the Europeans have never won.
Marc Wilmots gives experience and know-how as coach, but just how good are their players?
The goalkeeping position is currently held by Thibaut Courtois, yet another Chelsea player out on loan and excelling at Atletico Madrid. Courtois was easily the best goalkeeper in Spain last season and offers security in that position.
Simon Mignolet provides back-up and good competition for a position where Belgium look well equipped.
The defence is possibly the area where there may be a weakness for the Belgians.
Van Buyten is now 35 years old, while Vermaelen has struggled at times for Arsenal after what looked a promising start to his career there.
Vertonghen has been solid for Spurs but he is far from the quickest and as yet, Toby Alderweireld is yet to play a game for his new club Atletico Madrid.
Vincent Kompany remains a rock at the heart of their defence however, and his fitness will be a key factor for them at the World Cup.
As with many uncompromising defenders, injuries are starting to take their toll and he has already missed a lot of football for his club this season.
Moving further forward, you begin to realise what all the hype is about.
Axel Witsel was hugely coveted by many clubs before ultimately plumping for the money on offer at Zenit. That choice, however, should not detract from his obvious quality.
Much has been written about Marouane Fellaini after his high profile move to Man U.
While he has enjoyed an indifferent start, playing in the CL for the Reds will undoubtedly help him develop further. He remains a physically imposing presence in midfield, if lacking a little mobility.
Both Steven Defour and Mousa Dembele serve up further cultured offerings in the centre of the park, meaning that Belgium have a plethora of midfield options. It is further forward yet, however, where people are starting to get really excited.
Eden Hazard’s protracted courtship by several clubs the previous summer ended when he finally plumped for Chelsea.
While not yet the finished article, Hazard is clearly a huge talent who looks to be capable of playing and influencing games in much the same way that Luis Figo once did. Belgium will be looking for big things for him in Brazil.
His Chelsea teammate Kevin De Bruyne is far rawer than Hazard, despite being the same age. De Bruyne now needs to translate that potential into a more finished article.
Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke offers a potent striking option for Belgium alongside Chelsea’s on-loan striker Romelu Lukaku. Both strikers are quick, strong, have a good eye for goal and will be a handful for any defenders this Summer.
The likes of Everton’s Kevin Mirallas and Spurs Nacer Chadli again show the depth of talent that Belgium currently have.
It is an impressive squad.
There seems little doubt that this is a Belgium team bulging with talent and potential, though it does look to be a team short of experience at the very sharpest end – especially in the forward positions.
They will benefit from not carrying anything like the baggage that an England, an Italy or even hosts Brazil will carry into the tournament, nor will they suffer the same fear factor.
Belgium currently occupy a top eight world ranking position, meaning that they could receive a favourable draw at the upcoming tournament.
They should be well placed to qualify from their group – and as everyone knows anything can happen in the knockout stages.
The very best, the likes of Germany, Spain, Brazil should however be too strong for the Belgians. But a quarter, or even a semi-final showing, could well be on the cards for a team that is going to continue to improve.
While the World Cup could be a step too far for this fabulous generation of players, the Euros in France in 2016 could be a serious prospect for such a highly talented team.