Three KAA Gent players called up for Belgium, Batshuayi binned

Marc Wilmots has sparked heated debate after naming his 24-man squad for the upcoming Euro 2016 qualifiers against Andorra and Israel. Three KAA Gent players have received their first call-up following strong performances in the Champions League, Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts are included despite not being fully fit and a number of other younger players have returned to the fold.

Goalkeepers: Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Jean-François Gillet (KV Mechelen), Matz Sels (KAA Gent)

Mignolet assumes the mantle of first choice in the absence of the injured Thibaut Courtois, who will miss a competitive game for the first time under Wilmots. The experienced Gillet keeps his spot and is joined by a younger colleague who is a serious contender for the third goalkeeping spot in France – Gent’s Matz Sels who has been the form keeper in Belgium this season.

Defenders: Thomas Meunier (Club Brugge), Luis Pedro Cavanda (Trabzonspor), Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Jason Denayer (Galatasaray), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Nicolas Lombaerts (Zenit), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham), Dedryck Boyata (Celtic), Jordan Lukaku (KV Oostende)

With no Thomas Vermaelen and with Kompany and Lombaerts uncertain, Toby Alderweireld is the best option to play at centre-half, which opens up a vacancy for a rightback. There are specialists in this position and it is welcome to see Thomas Meunier back in the squad following his return to full fitness. He was the sole bright spot in a turgid Club performance against Lokeren last week and the same goes for his cameo off the bench on Thursday in the defeat to FC Midtjylland.

Luis Pedro Cavanda is a surprise name in the party but is a player Wilmots has had on his radar for a long time despite never having called up. The ex-Lazio man can cover both fullback positions. At leftback, Jordan Lukaku returns to the fold on the back of his excellent form for Belgian league leaders KV Oostende. He is very much in the attacking mould of fullbacks like Meunier and is a better option than Club Brugge’s woefully out-of-form Laurens De Bock. One notable absentee is Laurent Ciman whom Wilmots has long been loyal to in terms of squad selections. Last time he flew from Montréal only to sit in the stands for the first game and he’s been spared another fruitless journey.

Wilmots believes he will be able to call on captain Kompany at least for the home game with Israel:

“I spoke to Vincent on the phone yesterday. He had an appointment with the specialist in London. There is no tear, no injury. He’ll start running again on Monday. There’s a big chance both (Lombaerts as well) will play. I wanted Kompany with us in the squad. He wanted to come. He will follow his training programme with us in agreement with Manchester City. We won’t take any risk with him but you must trust a player who is 29,30. As we discussed yesterday, he will follow a specially adapted programme particularly with a view to playing in the second game (against Israel),” he told the press conference having complimented RTBF journalist Rodrigo Beenkens on his question.

Midfielders: Axel Witsel (Zenit), Radja Nainggolan (AS Roma), Sven Kums (KAA Gent), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Nacer Chadli (Tottenham), Dries Mertens (Napoli), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Zakaria Bakkali (Valencia)

Sven Kums is deservedly added to the squad given his outstanding form since joining Gent. The captain of the champions has shown an ability to bring his consistent and probing passing game to Champions League football. A player who leads by example, he should be entering the prime years of his career and is expected to put pressure on Axel Witsel whom he outshone in the Zenit-Gent match. Witsel remains an outstanding player albeit one who has to shake himself out of his comfort zone and rediscover the dynamism to go with his control and impressive physical attributes. Steven Defour has shown tentative signs of coming out of his slump at Anderlecht but still needs to improve considerably – the door must not be closed on him. As an aside, Belgium’s biggest club have no representatives in the senior squad. Mousa Dembélé is injured but it’s worth remarking that he has seen his career stall at White Hart Lane – a crying shame for such a wonderfully talented individual.

The further up the pitch we go, the more contentious Wilmots’ picks become. Zakaria Bakkali had fallen off a cliff and engineered a most turbulent of departures from PSV. Also hit by injury as well as his infamously fiery temperament, he has impressed in the league for Valencia upon his recent return having been omitted from their European squad. Wilmots’ decision to pick him on the back of such a short burst of form is testament to his faith in the powerful and mercurial winger. He could have opted instead for current PSV man Maxime Lestienne who has stepped admirably into the shoes of Memphis. There is no place for Kevin Mirallas who is in and out of the Everton team but whose versatility can be an asset or Adnan Januzaj. On loan at Borussia Dortmund from Manchester United, he has begun well under Thomas Tuchel but his ability to play in different roles appears to have counted against him ; Wilmots saw him play up front when he says he needs him further back. It’s a rather flimsy argument if you ask me.

Strikers: Romelu Lukaku (Everton), Divock Origi (Liverpool), Laurent Depoitre (KAA Gent)

With Christian Benteke having been ruled out, there was only one place to look for a replacement. Who fits the profile of an intelligent target man who can score, is in form and playing at a high level? None other than Gent’s spearhead Laurent Depoitre. He is also fully fit, which Benteke clearly wasn’t in Cyprus. Romelu Lukaku is the experienced striker and is fresh from a brace for Everton on Monday night. It would be a major surprise if he didn’t get the nod.

Divock Origi has barely played since joining Liverpool on a permanent basis this season and is short of both form and match sharpness. Nevertheless, he is a favourite of Wilmots due to his athleticism, ability to run into good areas and attitude. He can also play wide of the main striker. There is no place for the superior Michy Batshuayi whom Wilmots simply does not fancy. The coach justified the non-selection by saying that Batshuayi is having a bad time of it at Marseille – a statement that blatantly does not stand up against visual and statistical evidence. Even in a team that is struggling at the wrong end of Ligue 1, he is among the leading scorers in the league. Furthermore, he is explosive, can play as a lone striker and has the ability to make something out of nothing. My own view is that there is still bad blood festering between Wilmots and Batshuayi (and Lestienne) ever since they were sent home from the u21 setup two years ago.

Ultimately, any international boss with the pick of his nation’s talent is going to select the players he likes for his own reasons – as arbitrary as they may be and as he can get away with. Qualification is practically assured but nevertheless it is important to approach the upcoming games in as professional and ruthless a manner as is possible and integrate the new/returning players with a view to next summer’s tournament.

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