Group G: Time for Belgium’s golden generation to deliver
The Red Devils look good on paper but can Roberto Martinez turn them into a team?
Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku will lead the line for Belgium. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty
Who are they?
It is time for Belgium’s golden generation to deliver. The Red Devils head to Russia with arguably the best squad they have ever had, and on the back of a record-breaking qualification campaign. Roberto Martinez has strength-in-depth in every area and world-class talent in pretty much every position. Indeed, with Thibaut Courtois protected by Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, behind a midfield including Kevin De Bruyne and Mousa Dembele – supplying a forward line of Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku – the Belgians seem to have watertight credentials.
However, while it all looks very pretty on paper, this golden crop have failed to get past the quarter-finals in their last two major tournaments appearances – reaching the last eight Brazil in 2014 and in the 2016 Euros. Their core of key players will all be pushing 30 and beyond by the time the 2022 World Cup comes around, so the pressure is on them to get it right this summer if they want to leave a legacy worthy of their potential. If Belgium can cope with that pressure, they could go very deep in Russia.
World Cup moment
Belgium’s greatest era came under the stewardship of Guy Thuys in the 1980s, and his side stunned defending champions Argentina in the opening game of the 1982 World Cup – winning 1-0 at the Nou Camp. However, their peak came four years later, when a mammoth 4-3 extra-time win over the Soviet Union saw them reach the last four. Argentina and Diego Maradona had their revenge in the semi-finals, winning 2-0 en-route to winning the tournament.
How did they get here?
Qualification was a formality for Belgium, who picked up 28 points and scored 43 goals in their 10 games – Romelu Lukaku bagging 11. You can only beat what’s in front of you, but Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar hardly represent world-class opposition.
Roberto Martinez took over in the summer of 2016 after being fired by Everton in May of that year. Like at Goodison Park, Martinez has been able to get his attack humming – but despite impressive personnel, there are defensive frailties.
The main man
Kevin De Bruyne was arguably the standout player for Pep Guardiola’s record-breaking Manchester City side this season, recording the highest number of assists in the Premier League. A modern box-to-box midfielder, he has a stunning range of passing and dictates the side’s attacking tempo.
The one to watch
Belgium are well stocked in the middle but AS Monaco’s Youri Tielemans could add to his seven caps in Russia. An attacking midfielder, the 21-year-old former-Anderlecht prodigy has a penchant for the spectacular.
Should they win Group G ahead of England, Brazil are likely to be waiting in the quarter-finals. It would be a coming of age win for the Belgians, but it will probably be beyond them.
Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Koen Casteels (VfL Wolfsburg).
Defenders: Toby Alderweireld Tottenham), Dedryck Boyata (Celtic), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), Thomas Meunier (PSG).
Midfielders: Youri Tielemans (AS Monaco), Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian), Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City), Mousa Dembele (Tottenham), Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Monchengladbach), Dries Mertens (Napoli), Nacer Chadli (West Brom).
Forwards: Michy Batshuayi (Chelsea), Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Adnan Januzaj (Real Sociedad), Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid).