Euro 2016 Qualifier Preview – Andorra v Belgium
After making heavy weather of a favourable qualifying group, Belgium are on the verge from qualifying for their first European Championships since co-hosting in 2000. They need just a win against Group B’s bottom side and pointless Andorra to secure the finals berth, a seemingly comfortable task given that the Tricolors are 202 places below them in the FIFA rankings and that Belgium have a 10-0 aggregate lead in three matches against the minnows.
Yet, Belgian coach Marc Wilmots isn’t taking victory for granted, nor is he that confident in his side putting Andorra to the side on Saturday evening.
He told reporters, “Italy only beat Malta 1-0. Even small nations are increasingly well organised and give away little space. You should not necessarily expect champagne football.”
A tempering of expectations should have probably come earlier in the campaign, particularly surrounding the performances against Israel (a fortituous 1-0 win) and the defeat and draw to group leaders Wales. While onlookers should not expect ‘champagne football’, they should at least expect a decent Chardonnay – the leading lights of teams from Europe’s elite clubs should be able to comfortably sweep aside insurance salesmen and teachers who at best play in the Spanish fourth division.
Perhaps to keep the ‘undroppable’ players on their toes following so-so performance from some, Wilmots has called up a few relative unknown to those who don’t follow the Jupiler Pro League. For some time now, players plying their trade domestically in Belgium were generally (bar some exceptions) shunned for those in England, Italy et al, but that appears to be changing.
The form of Gent trio, Sven Kums, Matz Sels and Laurent Depoitre has been impossible to ignore. Holding midfielder Kums has hit somewhat of a purple streak for goalscoring, netting a hat-trick against Club Brugge before the international break (two were penalties), but he has been the linchpin in Gent’s rise up the table for close to a year now. Sels was heroic against Gent’s Champions League 1-1 draw with Lyon, on his debut saving a penalty from Alexander Lacazette, and has probably established himself as the best keeper in Belgium currently due to his reflexes amongst other attributes.
Another reaping the benefits of Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s system at Gent is Laurent Depoitre, who has been linked with a move to Spurs this week. While that may be another level for him, it’s undeniable that Depoitre’s attacking play and goalscoring has made him one of the stars of the league from relative obscurity a few years prior. Wilmots has said he will play up front against Andorra rather than Romelu Lukaku, perhaps saving the Everton striker for the final match against Israel.
Another player brought into the fold for these two qualifiers is a more recognisable name, though mainly due to his brother who’s also in the squad. Jordan Lukaku, the younger sibling of Romelu, has made the step up from the U21s and gives Belgium a legitimate left-back option at least. His early season form with the Pro League’s surprise pacesetters Oostende has been hard to ignore, giving him the left-back spot.
With fitness issues with Vincent Kompany and Jason Denayer, there is a defensive reshuffle at the back. Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are the centre-back pairing, a familiar duo from their time at Ajax, with Thomas Meunier claiming the right-back position.
After losing his spot to Thibaut Courtois, Simon Mignolet will be between the sticks due to his goalkeeping rival being out injured. He’s not played an official international for four years and will be keen to give Wilmots something to think about heading into 2016. The other keeper in the squad, 36-year old veteran Jean-Francois Gillet became a viral sensation last weekend thanks to his three penalty saves for Mechelen against Anderlecht.
The midfield is once again fully stocked, with the trio of Axel Witsel, Radja Nainggolan and Kevin de Bruyne in the central three. Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens will play on the wings. Hazard and De Bruyne have endured different starts with their Premier League clubs, with Chelsea languishing down the order and De Bruyne instantly settling in at City.
Perhaps a bigger carrot for Belgium is that two wins in these games will also move them to No 1. in FIFA rankings for the first time. Beating Andorra actually has some meaning, aside from qualification.