Belgium – Tunisia Preview: Wilmots and Leekens reunited

Sunday 13 May 2012 may be more than two years ago on the calendar but it feels like yesterday. On that fateful day, Georges Leekens stepped down as Belgium coach to take the job at Club Brugge. Fans, journalists and pundits alike were struck by surprise, including famously Christoph Daum whom he would replace at the helm in Brugge. As if that stunning development was not enough, Leekens would then deliver words, which will forever cast him as a figure of ridicule:

“The timing is somewhat difficult but 90% of my work with the Devils had been done.”

Unsurprisingly, Leekens would go on to say that he regretted the line that is as notorious in Belgian football as Graham Taylor’s now infamous “Do I not like that?” is in England. There’s a definite comparison to be made between the two. Taylor did his best to restore his reputation, which he did more successfully as a radio pundit than in his subsequent managerial spells but in spite of Leekens’ regrets over the “90 percent” debacle, he put his foot in it again, as first revealed by BeNeFoot last autumn:

Marc Wilmots will go up against Georges Leekens tonight in Belgium's final pre-World Cup friendly. (Photo: Belga)

Marc Wilmots will go up against Georges Leekens tonight in Belgium’s final pre-World Cup friendly. (Photo: Belga)

Leekens’ assistant in his second spell in charge of de Rode Duivels was Marc Wilmots, who had been brought into the fold by Dick Advocaat. He too was taken aback by his senior’s departure and one gets the sense that relations between the two are far from cordial. The likeable but demanding Wilmots said he personally had benefited little from being under the tutelage of the nomadic Leekens:

“Without wishing to sound brutal, I actually didn’t learn anything from him. We both had our own philosophy but that didn’t prevent us from working well together. An example: he went for zonal marking while I prefer man-marking. He was the boss. I was his assistant and I worked for him but he made the final decision with the information I gave him.”

As fate would have it, or rather due to the World Cup draw v Algeria and Leekens’ past, the two will coach against each other in tonight’s friendly as Belgium take on Tunisia in the national stadium in Brussels. There was a storm in a teacup in the build up to the game when Wilmots took issue with Leekens’ alleged assertion that les Diables Rouges would have no problem in swotting South Korea aside in Brazil only for Leekens to hit out at Sporza for selectively quoting him – not that journalists would ever do such things of course.

Whatever the nature of the relationship between the two coaches and the recent tough negotiating stance he has taken with the board over his assistants, Wilmots will nevertheless remain characteristically single-minded in his goal of taking his side as far as possible in the World Cup. He wants to ensure that his players are fresh and will allow some of his key men to rest up before they board their bespoke plane to Brazil.

Yesterday’s training session gave us a clue as to the side Wilmots will field this evening. Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku are all certainties to start the first game in ten days against Algeria. Young forward Divock Origi is set to make his first international start in an attacking line very much à la lilloise as he will be flanked by Kevin Mirallas and Eden Hazard. The midfield three is where competition for places is at its hottest. Wilmots has six players who can fill the roles “without a problem”.  Mousa Dembélé will be able to build upon his good showing against Sweden, Steven Defour has proven his mettle in carrying out tough assignments and will slot into Witsel’s role while Marouane Fellaini remains much appreciated by the fans who know him best. This means a return to the more traditional three midfielders.

Marc Wilmots continues to have faith in Eden Hazard. (Photo: @Belgianfootball)

Marc Wilmots continues to have faith in Eden Hazard. (Photo: @Belgianfootball)

Origi may not possess a great deal of experience in his career but he has many admirers within the national team hierarchy both at senior and underage levels not to mention at Lille. Wilmots was seen encouraging him to pick up his tempo in training ahead of his start and Romelu Lukaku was glowing in his praise for the versatile attacker:

“Divock is very complete and I am impressed with his quality. He is very strong in one-on-one situations. He’s very quick and has a good shot on him. He just needs to work on his build.”

Much debate continues to centre around Eden Hazard and his position in the team. Marc Degryse echoed the views of many who feel that the Chelsea star needs to shape up or face sitting on the bench. We saw both sides of Hazard against Sweden but he is in the right hands. Wilmots knows how to balance the carrot and the stick and taking heed of Hazard’s words that he feels at his most comfortable on the back of a run of games, has decided to stick with him. And with Leekens on the touchline, the hamburger men will likely find their takings are down due to a desire on Hazard’s part to prove that he can blossom much more under Wilmots.

As Kompany alluded to earlier, the most important thing is that there are no more injuries. We have seen in the past 24 hours with Franck Ribéry and Marco Reus that the casualty list is growing. Leekens may not be here to embrace the celebratory send-off the sold-out home crowd will hand to his former charges but he has promised to act if any inappropriate challenges endanger an opposition player’s World Cup participation. Hopefully nothing tonight will shock us quite as much as that Sunday in May 2012 but then again, football can be full of surprises when you least expect it.

Probable team: Courtois – Alderweireld, van Buyten, Kompany, Vertonghen – Defour, Dembélé, Fellaini – Mirallas, Origi, Hazard

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