Belgium on top of the world…really?

Belgium are officially the no.1 side in the Fifa rankings. They are, like the famous song from The Carpenters, on top of the world. Not that anyone is getting carried away. This was a comfortable 3-1 win over Israel who barely put up a fight, trapped by an overcautious approach. The team they have overtaken at the top, Argentina, eliminated Marc Wilmots’ men in Brazil last summer – a reminder that whatever rankings on a computer screen say, there is still some way to go to deservedly be seen as one of the elite nations. And anything associated with Fifa has as much credibility as Georges Leekens’ CV. Still, to be in the conversation with a population of around 11 million is no mean feat.

It is difficult to learn a great deal from games without a lot riding on them – at least from the hosts’ standpoint. Nevertheless, it was a bright and purposeful start from the hosts who had earmarked the occasion to celebrate qualification for a second successive tournament. That this didn’t translate into any goals before the interval is in part down to an incredible miss from Mertens – a rare blot on his copybook for a player who has enhanced his reputation over the past few days irrespective of the circumstances. After the game, Wilmots promised to restore Marouane Fellaini, Romelu Lukaku and Vincent Kompany to the starting eleven and he kept his word. It shouldn’t be forgotten that he took Mertens off with a view to this game and the Napoli man once again impressed.

Against timid opponents – and les Diables Rouges’ star-studded reputation goes before them even though it is not always entirely justified – there is a strong case to be made for playing him alongside De Bruyne and Hazard. What Mertens offers in his own right is abundantly clear – pace, a good cross, an ability to score and a good work ethic. His enthusiasm is infectious and endears him to his teammates and supporters. Put this in combination to make the three amigos and you have a trio who can all play in each other’s positions.

Nowhere are De Bruyne’s praises sung louder than this column but in my view it is the flexibility that the trio can bring that is more important than Belgium’s best player being listed as the number ten on the official teamsheet.  It was clear during the previous international break that the more creative players think on the same level and perhaps afford themselves more freedom than they are officially given. Moreover, the two greatest attributes of this generation of players are their mental strength and the flexibility, both horizontal and vertical, of so many of their players. With no need to tie them down to a fixed position, it opens up a plethora of possiblities in theory.

All three were on the scoresheet. That may be further evidence in favour of keeping them united in the line-up but it also hints at a long-standing cause for concern. For most of both this qualification campaign and the previous one, de Rode Duivels have effectively been playing with ten men not because whoever plays up front, the team is unable to get the most out of them. There are three possible reasons for this: either the personnel simply isn’t there, the supporting cast aren’t good enough or the manager is making the wrong choices, in terms of selection or tactics. Without raking over old ground too much, I would veer towards the latter.

Going back to players who think on the same level and who would most likely work in conjunction with the attacking trio, Michy Batshuayi is the best candidate. By all means state your preference for a more robust striker who is scoring regularly in England but at least have a good argument to back it up without insulting our intelligence. With the number nine position malfunctioning, it is more difficult to leave out midfielders who can score on a fairly regular basis and Fellaini’s goals have been key in the group.

Reflecting on the campaign as a whole, it has been marked by a raised level of expectations and a greater degree of scrutiny. Some of the feel-good factor has dissipated and some important players have either been beset by injury or have seen their club careers stagnate. Internally, there have been ructions with Wilmots fighting a series of battles against his faction-ridden employers. One point from six against fellow qualifiers Wales could be a portent for tougher tests to come for some. Next month’s friendlies against Italy and Spain will be far more instructive than the past few days but the fact the first game will be played in Kuwait City is a disgrace given the cultural significance of the opponent (with a fair few Belgians being of Italian origin) and a nod to the financial and administrative poverty of the KBVB/URBSFA. Better opposition and a tournament in which a semi-final berth is the minimum objective will see Wilmots’ tactical rigidity and selectorial hierarchy (Radja Nainggolan excepted – what a welcome addition) face their most stringent stress test yet.

Nonetheless, it is on a positive note we must end. Qualification is not to be sniffed at. Few teams sail through as England have and it is a slog over twelve months. The tournament format will allow the team to get into their stride. Expectations will have to be ramped up but for the time being, let’s enjoy the achievement and content ourselves that whatever the rankings say, a long way has been travelled and much progress has been made.

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