Belgium spirits are high ahead of Cyprus test
With club football entering the home straight for this season, many players, rightly or wrongly, would be forgiven if their thoughts were elsewhere during this ill-timed international week. Plenty across Europe will have already pull out with knocks and niggles to give them a handy 10 day break. Belgium however have plenty of work to do.
In what was perceived as a fairly comfortable group for the World Cup 2014 quarter-finalists, the Rode Duivels lie slightly off the pace with five points from their opening three Euro 2016 qualification games. While not terrible, they’ve yet to really hit their stride and lay down the marker many expected, though if you’re a regular watcher of this team, you’ll known that they’ve done this before. November’s goalless draw with Wales in Brussels uncovered old wounds, as Belgium failed to make their dominance in the game count, frustrating many.
Preparation hasn’t exactly been plain sailing for Wilmots, with a lot of late withdrawals. Romelu Lukaku, who still has a point to prove at international level was ruled out due to injury, as were Club Brugge full-backs Thomas Meunier and Laurens de Bock. All of whom are likely exhausted due to the strenuous demands of balancing a league and Europa League campaign so late into the season. Also out is Steven Defour who’s had plenty of injury trouble over the last few months. Those who’ve not been signed off but are doubtful include Christian Benteke, Radja Nainggolan and Nicolas Lombaerts, though it could go either way for each.
Competition for places is high and team spirit is seemingly unwavering though. The camp is jovial with plenty of photobombing and ‘trelfies’ appearing on social media to while away the hours of downtime. This is a tight-knit collective who know each other very well and are probably still buoyant from the World Cup experience.
The lengthy casualty list should make Wilmots’ job easier at picking a side, with certain names undroppable despite sub-par performances domestically. Vincent Kompany has struggled for Manchester City but Belgium’s captain is a lock at centre-back. Jan Vertonghen hasn’t lived up to his high standards either but has already said he’s comfortable in the problem left-back position. Joining them in defence will be Toby Alderweireld, who’s settled into his rhythm at Southampton in the Premier League, and Lombaerts if he’s able to play.
The story in midfield is much brighter fortunately. Axel Witsel has demonstrated time and time again his importance as the deep-lying midfielder, while the oft-maligned and physical Marouane Fellaini has found his groove under Louis van Gaal at Manchester United. The final midfield spot is a bit of a conundrum. Mousa Dembele has drifted at Spurs with average performances, so it could well be Nainggolan or Chadli who gets the nod, the latter of whom is a Wilmots favourite.
Rather than having an ace up his sleeve, Wilmots has two in Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, both arguably having their best ever club seasons. Hazard’s consistency in the Premier League could lead him silverware and individual plaudits, while his former Chelsea colleague has taken the Bundesliga by storm, providing 16 assists in 26 league games. Hazard has been gushing in his praise of De Bruyne this week, saying ‘it was a shame’ that he was no longer his club teammate and that he could have played at Chelsea due to his “tremendous qualities”.
The two in tandem should make light work of Cyprus on Saturday night if both are on song and will be the key to Belgium succeeding. Wilmots expects the Cypriots to defend deep and be difficult to break down, hence why Hazard and De Bruyne cutting in from the wings will be critical. Dries Mertens is also a very valuable player to introduce if things aren’t going to plan, although you could argue his national team performances merit more than just a super-sub appearance.
The reliance on the two is heightened when you consider the striking options. Christian Benteke’s truncated Aston Villa campaign hasn’t helped his development, but he looks to be getting back on form and should start, given his good relationship on the pitch with Hazard and De Bruyne. Those looking to lay their claim to the lone striker position are Divock Origi, whose performances in the World Cup now seem a distant memory despite a recent change in fortunes, and Michy Batshuayi, the former Standard forward who has impressed for Marseille in Ligue 1. He’s hopeful of a few minutes due to the injury to Lukaku, which is a strong possibility. Batshuayi’s attitude in the past has dissuaded Wilmots from picking him, but he appears to have turned a corner and integrated into the group.
Though the focus should be more on the midweek trip to Israel for the rearranged fixture, Cyprus shouldn’t be underestimated. They proved against Bosnia that they can be dangerous on the counter, securing a 2-1 win against the World Cup 2014 qualifiers. At the same time, Belgium have to win this game to provide a platform for the rest of the qualifying campaign.