Argentina – Belgium Preview: The little Belgians and the giant Messi
Change is sweeping through the air in the wake of Belgium’s dramatic extra time victory over the United States. Whereas before Marc Wilmots had been something of a diplomat who sought to quieten expectations in the same way Foreign Office mandarins look to ease tensions, he was in a rather bullish mood on Tuesday evening. He called Argentina a side lacking in balance although that claim is somewhat undermined by the fact he was then under the impression that Alejandro Sabella still employed the 5-3-2 system ditched during the win over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Wilmots said the whole of Belgian could celebrate this historic achievement of reaching the World Cup quarter-finals. Everyone but him and his squad that is. For when they returned to the hotel in the early hours of the morning, thoughts turned not to jubilation but recuperation. The 120 minutes had taken a considerable emotional, mental and physical toll on the players to the exit.
During his playing career, Wilmots was a scorer of important goals for club and country. We have already documented how he dragged Belgium to the second round twelve years ago. However, his greatest strength in my view was between the ears. He has spoken of how his many years in the Bundesliga has shaped his mentality, that of wanting to win, having thorough attention to detail and of not being too easily satisfied. Roy Keane famously said that he felt the rot had set in after Manchester United completed their historic Treble in 1999 but for Wilmots, this kind of culture he feels to be prevalent in Belgian football must become a thing of the past, a relic of a time when successive generations invariably underachieved or didn’t achieve at all.
Ironically given Wilmots’ resolve that earned him the enduring nickname “Kampfschwein” (war pig), he performed with such distinction for Schalke 04. Germany’s second biggest club have never won the Bundesliga and so their finest hour dates back to the UEFA Cup win in 1997. Wilmots scored in the first leg of the final and netted the winning penalty against Gianluca Pagliuca. During his second spell in Gelsenkirchen, he retired during the season and became the manager. Although his short spell at the helm wasn’t exactly laden with success, he nevertheless represents the kind of mental fortitude that Schalke have so often spectacularly been lacking in as they continue to underachieve given their supporter base and financial capability, debts notwithstanding.
Explaining his desire to make his mark in a manner beyond mere results, Wilmots explained:
“It’s too early to celebrate, we must change the Belgian mentality. We want to go as far as possible in this World Cup and we will continue to look at it game-by-game. If you’re in the quarter-finals, everything is possible. The ambition is there. I think differently to the majority of Belgians but it’s not the first time.”
Perhaps even in this desire for change, there is that sense of continuity in the fact that Wilmots wants to lead, which is maybe not surprising given his extra-sporting activities. He kept his promise to Schalke that he would not be there for the long-term having pledged to start a career in politics. It didn’t last more than two years but he had stayed true to his word and ignored the fanciful claim from Louis Michel that Wilmots could combine his term as a senator with football management.
In his post-game remarks, he even went as far as to say he knew how to deal with Lionel Messi, Ah, Messi. The Argentine wizard now believed by many to be the greatest footballer ever to set foot on a pitch has unsurprisingly been the main focal point of the pre-match hype. And hype there is on a scale not seen in more than a generation. I thought la Dernière Heure put it beautifully with the headline “les petits Belges face au géant Messi”. It’s a very clever phrase, which taps into Wilmots’ sentiments in a way. Belgium has always seen itself as a small nation, the underdog. Their northern neighbours aren’t much bigger (almost 17 million to around 11 million Belgians) but they are much more strident in their self-confidence and assertiveness. On the other hand, this Belgian team contains some giant specimens of players such as the ever-hungry Romelu Lukaku, the commanding Axel Witsel and the oft-maligned Marouane Fellaini, who has covered more ground than any other Red Devils in the tournament despite not being ever-present.
Axel Witsel said it would be dangerous to focus solely on Messi, who has stood out in this tournament not merely by being an outstanding individual but by getting his team out of the mire when the going looked too tough for mere mortals. Jan Vertonghen said Dries Mertens had warned the team not to lose sight of Gonzalo Higuain who is in need of a Lukakuesque resurgence in this tournament. Wilmots has said that if Messi gets past one player, then the second and third must be ready to thwart the genius – it’s almost like setting up the gauntlet in the famous television show Gladiators even if Wilmots didn’t count to five. Famous last words you may say but Belgium can boast the best defence in the tournament and their trump card may turn out to be Thibaut Courtois. Once famously caught out by a most clever Messi free kick, he reacted superbly to an ingenious American routine and threw himself at the feet of Clint Dempsey to make a stunning and vital save. He has not conceded a goal to Messi in their last seven meetings and after 21 international caps, Petr Cech’s successor is yet to taste defeat.
The midfield triangle will have to be on top of their game. Steven Defour is a strong possibility to return from suspension and form an all-Standard midfield alongside Witsel and Fellaini. Defour has excelled before in the role of man-marking a key opponent out of the game (notably Wesley Sneijder) even if it will undoubtedly take a collective effort. Mousa Dembélé is struggling to be fit, which I maintain is a blow but Vincent Kompany has pulled up well and Toby Alderweireld, while feeling the effects of his exploits against the USA, is not expected to miss out. Wilmots may well opt to restore the greater experience of Romelu Lukaku up front, now that his confidence has been restored. This would be harsh on Divock Origi if understandable at the same time. Wilmots wants to foster a winning culture and a positive approach on the field. He has pledged his side will look to take the game to Argentina. While he once said he’d prefer the sporting director’s role at Schalke to the Belgian job, he now acknowledges that he might even still be in charge for Russia 2018. Plenty of time then to irreversibly change the Belgian mentality.