Belgium vs Bosnia-Herzegovina: Kompany and Vermaelen’s case for the defence
Since injuring himself during Belgium’s World Cup campaign, Thomas Vermaelen has been absent from the national team. It has been a long road back to full fitness – one that has tempered the joy of leaving Arsenal for an even bigger stage in Barcelona. Making this all the more frustrating is the fact that Barcelona’s weakest area is at the heart of their defence.
Vermaelen has also endured a prolonged loss of form. The excellent start he made at the Emirates, punctuated by his attacking qualities and tenacity made the former Ajax man a popular figure among the supporters. It was little surprise in this respect that he would graduate to the captaincy. Vermaelen’s defensive certainty began to desert him as he was frequently caught out of position and showed to be quite error prone. While some of the responsibility may rightly be placed at those playing further forward, it became clear that the best partnership for Arsène Wenger would be Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny.
Less pronounced and more belatedly acknowledged in the media, has been the downturn in Vincent Kompany’s standing as one of the best central defenders in Europe. The darling of the City fans whose memories of the third tier were still fresh, the former Anderlecht and HSV man became an indomitable figure as captain and his leadership was a major factor in a first league title in 44 years. Perhaps because of this status, his slump was overlooked. Where at his best he would sense danger immediately and make a perfectly-timed intervention, he started to appear rash and less authoritative. Perhaps the strain of having to cover for underwhelming partners and captaining in an often unhappy dressing room had taken its toll, and that’s before the spectre of injuries returned to haunt him.
This summer, there were major question marks against Kompany’s name. Was it even plausible to talk of a decline? Vermaelen had begun to see the light at the end of the tunnel from February onwards and even managed a solitary league appearance at the end of last season. With the transfer ban hanging over his club, he would be required to step into a side that had just won a European and domestic treble with the most expensive and perhaps the most fearsome front line ever assembled.
We are only at the beginning of September but even if Manchester City do not go on to win a third Premier League crown, the sight of Kompany, having scored, standing atop the advertising boards, punching the air in front of an ecstatic away support, will go down as one of the enduring images of the season. Vermaelen has also enjoyed a mini-renaissance, securing Barcelona’s first league win of the season with a volley. The feeling of full fitness he has not experienced in a long time has clearly imbibed the Belgian vice-captain with new confidence, something his centre-back partner at the national team was only happy to indulge in before the media:
“Thomas was also under fire, in his case due to injuries. Now he is fully fit and then he is one of the best defenders in the world,” Kompany said. “I look forward to being able to start alongside him once more.”
As in the previous qualifying campaign, the defence has been a strong point with just two goals conceded in six games. Unfortunately, one of those came in Cardiff as de Rode Duivels lost 1-0 to Wales. It was a most unwelcome result for coach Marc Wilmots who had struggled to put to bed talk of jumping ship to Schalke. As has been well documented, that was only one of a series of issues he had in an ongoing battle with a Belgian FA that might be better advised to concentrate on becoming fit for purpose in the 21st century than partially suppressing the country’s famed linguistic diversity in its social media output.
Having committed himself to the job for at least the next nine months and also secured Enzo Scifo as the u21 boss, the upcoming internationals should provide a welcome relief of sorts. In spite of some of the post-Cardiff doom-and-gloom and the continued criticism over the manner in which the team is playing, victory tonight in a sold-out national stadium would put Belgium in sight of a second successive finals tournament.
Unfortunately, standing in the way this evening is a nation that have proved a tricky opponent to overcome in recent years in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Still very much in the race even for one of the two automatic qualification spots, the Bosnians have only lost once to les Diables Rouges in five encounters. They themselves also overcame the barrier of qualifying for a championship and have an impressive array of players headed by Miralem Pjanic who spent much of his early life in Luxembourg and Kompany’s former team-mate Edin Dzeko who both play for AS Roma.
In order to disperse the potential storm clouds around Wilmots and not to suffer any unnecessary qualification jitters, a repeat of the result from the first encounter between the sides (if not the scoreline (4-1) – that is asking a bit much!) is required. There is only one survivor from that game in 2005 and while he alone won’t be able to provide the fluency in attack and coax the sort of form that saw Eden Hazard crowned as the Premier League’s best player last season, his forthright manner and strength of character will be vital in galvanising the group for a major push towards France and a tilt at bettering their performance in Brazil. That man? Vincent Kompany.
Belgium: Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vermaelen, Vertonghen – Witsel, Fellaini, Nainggolan – De Bruyne, Lukaku, Hazard