Saturday’s international friendly may well prove to be more important for the team above as their last game before Euro 2012, but Belgium aren’t here as pushovers – looking to enter the next qualification campaign with a huge scalp.
This will be the first time Belgium have visited Wembley since 1964, and it is the first meeting between the two since 1999. Many will of course remember their epic encounter in Bologna at Italia ’90, where David Platt broke Belgian hearts with a last minute volley in extra time. Since then, we’ve seen one Golden Generation fall by the wayside for England, and Belgium are very much in danger of copying their counterparts, with Brazil 2014 already being touted as their year. It’s all going to go wrong isn’t it?
Their 2012 however has been eeriely similar – manager leaves national team, and for this game, injury problems mount– but for England, it’s just a tad bit more important.
What is true at least is that the English public will be more familiar with this Belgian lineup more than any fixture between them previously. With several of the first-teamers plying their trade in the Premier League, and the Belgian captain lifting that prestigious trophy this year, it could well be the most level playing field for some time.
Some are perhaps looking to put themselves in the shop window, and also cement their place in a very strong squad. Everyone wants to play at Wembley, especially Marouane Fellaini who knows how hallowed the ground is. He did forget he’d played there three times this week though.
In truth, international preparation has been overshadowed by club matters. Eden Hazard is certain to become part of Chelsea’s Belgian revolution after revealing on Twitter that would join the Champions League winners, and this has played its part in the pre-match build-up. Hazard even missed the bus to training this week, clearly still on Cloud Nine in securing his dream move. But who else should we look out for in the Rode Duivels?
Belgium are currently in transition. Caretaker boss Marc Wilmots has the honour of navigating the international friendly period, after the departure of Georges Leekens to Club Brugge. Now it’s his time to put an imprint down for the next qualification phase for World Cup 2014 – a tough one for Belgium with many teams considered their equal.
Apart from the aforementioned Hazard distraction, Belgium have had numerous injury concerns, notably to the already flimsy defence. Vincent Kompany is struggling with a calf injury, sitting out training with the rest of the group for exercises in the hotel. He’ll decide whether he plays 30 minutes before the game. Thomas Vermaelen, however did train for an hour on Thursday. Toby Alderweireld, Nicolas Lombaerts and Chelsea keeper Thibaut Courtois are all out of the game too – the former two causing huge problems in defence and the latter not important as Sunderland’s Simon Mignolet gets the nod. Sebastien Pocognoli is a left-back option replacing the Zenit defender.
Denis Odoi is the only player really capable of filling in at right-back and he endured a nightmare in the 2-2 draw against Montenegro, taught a lesson in international football with the first goal being his fault mostly. It was the same old story for Belgium – all the time in the world in front of goal and little end product, plus a shaky defence still overflowing with centre-backs. England provide substantial tougher opposition and it could be a long day for the back four.
If we move to midfield, we get another problem – who to pick? You’d naturally assume Wilmots will go with Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel certain to be there. The third midfielder is tougher to choose. To firm up their defence, Timmy Simons could fill in, as could Steven Defour, or perhaps Moussa Dembele might drop deeper like he does with Fulham. It’s a wonderful problem to have.
Up front, Hazard will surely get a chance to provide a sneak preview for any fan who doesn’t understand who he is (ITV commentary team). Who joins him is anyone’s guess. Dembele again, Dries Mertens, Kevin Mirallas, Nacer Chadli, Igor De Camargo as the focal point. Or even Romelu Lukaku, who seems more interested in moaning about his club form. This explains Belgium’s main problem at the moment – a wealth of options causing too much confusion amongst the front four.
My team would be as follows (4-2-3-1/4-3-3) : Mignolet, Odoi, Kompany (if fit), Vertonghen, Vermaelen (at left-back which he loves), Simons, Fellaini, Witsel, Dembele, Hazard, Mirallas. But I expect Wilmots to experiment and also probably play De Camargo. He’ll give time to those who deserve the fixture. Dries Mertens could easily start too. It’s pretty interchangable. The striker role continues to be a problem, I’ve gone with Mirallas here but I expect whoever starts to drop deep to help out.
Now on to the Three Lions
England are currently transition. That’s not me being unoriginal in the same opening, it’s the only description needed. Fabio Capello’s exit has flung England into a world of problems ahead of Euro 2012, yet also managed to cull the lofty expectations from baying fans. Getting out of the group should be the target for a team left so short of time with their new manager.
Roy Hodgson takes the reins for this tournament – a safe appointment given his international CV but he’s already had several things to deal with in his short tenure. Taking John Terry to the tournament left a sour taste for some and injuries have already piled up, with Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry out for the summer excursion to Poland and Ukraine. He’s also had to find an adequate replacement for Wayne Rooney for the opening two games, with the options up front looking rather underwhelming.
The initial squad for Euro 2012 is still in my view stronger than the previous tournament and despite all this turmoil, England did record a pedestrian opening win for Hodgson, securing their first win in Norway in about 30 years. There were moment of promise in that game. Ashley Young looked vibrant, the defence did well and Andy Carroll performed his role perfectly, and looks like a good bet as a pinch-hitter for the tournament. He’ll likely start here with England but will he get as much joy with two established Premier League centre-backs. Who knows. Ashley Young could be the X-Factor here for Belgium – deal with him and Gerrard and things could go swimmingly.
Expected England team for me (4-4-1-1) – Hart, Johnson, Terry, Cahill, Cole, Walcott, Parker, Gerrard, Milner, Young, Carroll. Wayne Rooney will likely be given a half to make sure he’s not extra rusty, whilst we should see some time for Stewart Downing, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Danny Welbeck. England should target Belgium on the wings and flood them that way – that’s where their weakness lies.
I think Belgium are in for a tough time on Saturday. Their defence will need to be at their best to keep a slightly below par England out. I expect goals with Belgium’s back-four looking decidedly dodgy, just the confidence tonic England fans need before a tournament. Belgium will give it a good-go but I’m not entirely optimistic for them. It will lay down a decent marker for how much they need to improve for the next campaign. England 3-1 Belgium
Editors Note – Stay tuned to The Belgian Waffle over the weekend for extended coverage of this big game for the site and on Twitter. I managed to get press access at Wembley and I’m really looking being in the press box. Probably the highlight for this site so far. If you’re around Wembley this weekend, give me a tweet!