Scotland – Belgium preview: Hampden holds fond memories for van Buyten
When the Belgian team is officially announced this evening, attention will once again be focused on the stellar names who still have many years of service ahead of them. Given the prominent roles Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and more play week in, week out in the Premier League, you could be forgiven for overlooking one of the most experienced members of the squad.
Daniel van Buyten made his debut back in February 2001 against San Marino while he was at Standard Liège and a month later he came off the bench to score his first international goal at Hampden Park and rescue a point for Belgium. The Red Devils were floundering after they had gone 2-0 down and had Eric Deflandre sent off. Belgium’s other goalscorer that day was none other than Marc Wilmots, now van Buyten’s coach rather than his captain.
Wilmots, who will soon open talks on a new contract, having united the Belgian FA behind him due to his straight-talking and ability to cast aside doubts over his command of tactics, understands the rigours of international football and the necessity of having some old heads to set an example and pass on their considerable experience to the rest of the squad. After all, it is coming up to twelve years since Belgium last qualified for any international tournament and only van Buyten and Timmy Simons from the current playing group know what it takes to take what has recently proven to be an elusive step.
The value of the 35-year-old’s leadership to the squad was recently demonstrated outside the international arena, in the aftermath of Bayern Munich’s European Super Cup win on penalties against Chelsea. Van Buyten was seen consoling his opponent on the night Romelu Lukaku after the young striker had missed the decisive penalty to hand Pep Guardiola his first trophy in charge in Bavaria. It was testament to van Buyten’s sportsmanship and professionalism that at that moment, he was thinking about more than just himself and his team’s triumph.
There are some who believe that Simons and van Buyten should be cast aside but it would be a foolish and short-term move to do so before qualification is assured. Van Buyten knows what it is like to bear the brunt of heavy criticism as he did during Louis van Gaal’s reign at Bayern but he came out the other side and has enjoyed something of an Indian summer to his career.
He has comfortably slipped into the role of elder statesman at the Bundesliga and European champions and he would let no-one down were he to be called upon next summer. Simons has just returned to Club Brugge after a successful spell with 1. FC Nürnberg and is a model of both consistency and extracting every last drop from the talent he was blessed with – certainly someone worth having around the squad.
Ahead of the game itself, it would be remiss not to mention the series of events that preceded yesrerday morning’s flight from Zaventem airport, just outside Brussels, to Glasgow. Very much at the opposite end of his footballing career to van Buyten and Simons, Zakaria Bakkali has burst on to the scene this season for PSV, scoring a brilliant hat-trick in a 5-0 win over NEC. In spite of his precocious talent, the 17-year-old from Liège is yet to represent Belgium at senior level as he is yet to make a definitive decision on whether to represent the country of his birth or Morocco.
PSV were unhappy that Bakkali was called up for this game due to a groin injury that kept him out of their Champions League qualifier against AC Milan but as Kevin Mirallas admitted, “Everyone knows why Bakkali is there. The first step is to give him a cap so that he will remain a Belgian international.” Wilmots, for his part, does not want to put any undue pressure on Bakkali for fear of him choosing Morocco, as Mehdi Carcela did.
Some of Belgium’s biggest names were cast in central roles in the last days and even minutes of the transfer window. Romelu Lukaku must wonder what he has to do to convince Chelsea that his credentials to be their first choice striker are impeccable and he joined Everton on loan. Marouane Fellaini got the move he wanted to a Champions League club when he finally followed David Moyes from Everton to Manchester United. The likeable midfielder had gone through a similarly late move five years earlier when he waved goodbye to Standard ; he and Wilmots are now on the same page as regards his role in the team. Fellaini does not wish to be used as an explicitly attacking midfielder, let alone an auxiliary striker although Axel Witsel has nailed down the no.6 role in front of the back four.
Wilmots has a number of slight injury worries ahead of the game. Eden Hazard has, as of Friday afternoon, been ruled out due to a recurrence of an old Achilles tendon problem with his national team boss surprised to learn of a course of injections given to his playmaker several weeks ago. Nacer Chadli is less of a doubt and Wilmots likes him as the most attacking of the midfield trio. Kevin Mirallas will start on the right with his namesake De Bruyne moving to the left and Mousa Dembélé will likely join Fellaini and Witsel in midfield should Chadli not be risked.
The other major selection conundrum is how to replace absent captain Vincent Kompany, who scored in the reverse fixture. If Jan Vertonghen recovers from twisting his ankle, the most likely option is that he will continue at leftback with Zenit defender Nicolas Lombaerts just inside him. Hannover’s Sébastien Pocognoli, who is an attacking leftback, is another but less likely possibility after he did well in the 0-0 draw against France.
Belgium’s success in the group has been built on hardly conceding a goal with Thibaut Courtois nothing short of world class between the sticks. However, those who simply rave about this team based on a shopping list of names may be surprised to know that rarely, if ever, do they simply turn up and blow teams away. It took until the second half for Scotland to be breached in Brussels and Gordon Strachan’s presence has rejuvenated the side, culminating in a shock 0-1 win in Croatia, which did no harm to Belgium’s hopes of reaching Brazil.
As such, Belgium will not be complacent as Croatia perhaps were but Wilmots will look to dictate terms and expects Scotland to play on the counter attack and thus react to how his team set up and not vice-versa. This team are big business. The remaining 8000 tickets for the home game against Wales sold out in under three minutes and there will be big screens across Belgium where fans can get behind the team from afar. There will be a fervent atmosphere at a sold-out Hampden Park from both sets of fans. Wilmots might once again be grateful for the wise old head of van Buyten (whom he described as top class just last night) in the heart of his defence.
Update: The starting eleven has just been announced with the major surprise being that Steven Defour starts in midfield.
Belgium: Courtois – Alderweireld, van Buyten, Lombaerts, Vertonghen – Defour, Witsel, Fellaini – De Bruyne, Benteke, Chadli