Belgium – Serbia Preview: Down to business
It has been a successful fortnight for the Red Devils both on and off the field. The senior side benefited from the excellent training facilities in the United States as well as their relative anonymity on the other side of the Atlantic before gunning down the US national team 2-4 in an entertaining friendly. Thibaut Courtois won the prestigious Zamora Trophy for his record-breaking goalkeeping excellence at Atlético Madrid. 20,000+ supporters attended the inaugural Red Devils fan day and around 3000 fans attended the final open training session earlier this week. A group of dedicated fans have spent around £1000 constructing a colourful display to be unveiled this evening and in the latest of the Red Devils Challenges, the plan is to fill one end with thousands of passionate female followers. And in a rarity in Belgian football, we might even be getting a new national stadium(!)
There have been a couple of bits of bad news to remind us all that rarely is everything rosy in the garden. Thomas Vermaelen picked up a thigh injury in Cleveland and will therefore sit tonight’s game out and Eden Hazard has not fully recovered, meaning it’s almost certain he will start on the bench this evening. One unfortunate by-product of international tournaments such as the ongoing Euro u21s and internationals in general is that the same tired clichés are trotted out but anyone following the Toulon tournament and the Euro u19s will know that just because a team is young and Belgian does not mean success is guaranteed.
On that note, it’s worth saying that the preparation for this game has given us further insight into the many hats the Belgium coach is required to don. Indeed, Marc Wilmots has seemingly spent as much managing [keeping a check on] expectations as he has coming up with a plan to outwit his opposite number Siniša Mihajlović. As Wilmots said in his press conference: “I’m not here to make people dream but to tell it as it is.” That could be our tagline!
Given that this qualifier takes place at the end of a long and arduous season, much of the focus has understandably been on keeping the players mentally and physically fresh. The players gel very well together and have a good relationship with their outstanding physio Lieven Maesschalck and his team. Motivation will not be a problem in front of 50,000 fans. Les Diables Rouges have not been as popular for a very long time and for those who didn’t camp beside their computer for days on end before tickets went on sale, big screens around the country will bring fans together for the game.
As for the team selection tonight, the main question is who will replace the absent Vermaelen. It’s expected that the vastly experienced Daniel van Buyten will slot in, with Kompany moving to the position of left-sided centreback. Often the target of some stinging criticism over the years in Germany, it could be argued that the veteran is enjoying an Indian summer to his career. The 35-year-old is behind Dante and Jérôme Boateng in the pecking order but he has just put pen to paper on a new one-year deal. The other, less likely possibilities are Zenit’s Nicolas Lombaerts, who is a left-sided centreback or the best Belgian defender this season Jan Vertonghen but that would necessitate playing Sébastien Pocognoli at leftback.
Toby Alderweireld got the nod over Guillaume Gillet in the States and looks set to retain his spot at rightback. With Axel Witsel back at the base of the midfield, Nacer Chadli is rumoured to be starting ahead of Marouane Fellaini – the Arsenal target enjoyed playing deeper but with Mousa Dembélé having moved back in recent seasons, the in-form FC Twente man is likely seen as a better link to the front three. Kevin Mirallas, more trusted to play from the start than Dries Mertens and on the back of a well-taken goal against the USA, should deputise for Eden Hazard.
Serbia have a strong looking defence on paper including the likes of Ivanovic, Bisevac, Subotic and Kolarov but they have less stellar names further forward. Adem Ljajic is out of favour due to his refusal to sing the national anthem and Zoran Tosic will be absent. Aleksandar Mitrovic, a quick striker who is expected to lead the line, is a target for Racing Genk and Chadli’s teammate Dusan Tadic is one of the Eredivisie’s outstanding players. Serbia lost the reverse game 0-3 at home but to dismiss the match as a cakewalk would be pure scoreboard journalism. They were extremely dangerous in the opening half-hour and could have been a couple of goals to the good at least were it not for the post, Courtois and a close shave. Thus far in the group they’ve been less successful away from home with one point from three but complacency at this stage would be highly dangerous.
Wilmots is not wrong when he says that if Belgium win it does not put them in Brazil and nor does a defeat end their hopes of qualification – as ever he is trying to keep a sense of perspective – but completing the double over Serbia would be the ideal way to go into a summer break for a well-deserved rest before the glamour friendly against France and the home stretch in the group. After a successful trip to America and two good weeks of training, for the final time this season, it’s time to get down to business.
Feature pic: RTBF.