With Euro 2012 qualification failure well in the past now, the focus shifts towards the next international tournament and it’s clear from that the fans now expect something from arguably the best team for decades. The first test is Euro 2012 qualifiers Greece, who are to embark on their tournament preparations. A stern test but can Belgium do it?
Without the risk of sounding jingoistic, this year could be the making of this young(ish) Belgian side. Friendlies with reasonably strong opposition Greece, Montenegro, England and Holland could provide the perfect stepping stone ahead of the World Cup qualifiers. The end of last year provided a good glimpse at how far this Rode Duivels side has come in the last campaign, drawing in the Stade De France albeit against a French B-Team.
Georges Leekens picked a very strong squad ahead of the game in Crete and also sprung some surprises. The issues of old still remain however – the full-backs don’t match the quality of the spine of the side whilst the team is crying out for a proper frontman. Also most interestingly, only four players from the squad are plying their trade in Belgium – this was reduced to three after Guillaume Gillet left for the impending birth of his first child. This shows the other problem – getting all these players from across Europe to form an understanding, yet other nations still manage it.
The team prepared behind closed doors in stormy conditions before Leekens announced his starting eleven. Anyway here’s a breakdown of each area of the squad:
It’s always been an area of the squad Belgium seem to have a wealth of talent coming through, and this crop is no exception. Sunderland No.1 Simon Mignolet has been through the wars recently but will play against Greece. However Georges Leekens assured the media that this doesn’t mean he is the definite No. 1 in the long-term. This is more than likely down to the continuing rise of former Genk keeper Thibaut Courtois. Since being loaned out to Atletico Madrid as their David De Gea replacement, the 19-year old shot-stopper has impressed in La Liga, with many saying he’s been one of the best keepers in Spain. Being rated only behind stalwarts Casillas and Valdes is no mean feat after only a handful of games for Atletico Madrid. Courtois went 500 minutes without conceding in 2012 too. The future is bright for him and I expect him to gain the No.1 national shirt at some point in the qualifying campaign.
There’s also the comparative old boy of the goalkeeping trio Jean-Francois Gillet, who also receives plaudits in Serie A. Anderlecht’s keeper Silvio Proto misses out, showing you how good Belgium’s options are.
Too many centre-backs and not enough speed on the flanks. It’s the age-old problem. Leekens has gone with a solid back-four though. At right-back, Ajax’s Toby Alderweireld will again start despite the encouraging league form of Standard’s Laurent Ciman. The centre-back pairing is pure grit with a classy veneer, with captain Vincent Kompany playing alongside Thomas Vermaelen, who is now seemingly out of his left-back exile for both club and country. It’ll be interesting to see how Vermaelen plays after Leekens made Kompany his captain instead – arguably the right move due to Kompany’s stock in world football and his general media-friendly demeanour. Zenit’s Nicolas Lombaerts will fill in at left-back, an underrated player in my view, but Standard’s Sebstien Pocognoli at least deserved to be called up. Jan Vertonghen will be the man to miss out, despite some performances against Manchester United that basically issued a come-and-get-me plea to the Premier League.
Hard to believe the scene above is four years ago, so much has changed at Sclessin. Another strong area of the midfield for Belgium. Leekens opts for the former Standard Liege trinity of Marouane Fellaini, Steven Defour and Axel Witsel in a three-man midfield. All have played football with each other and it’s important that the midfield has that familiarity to it. The Belgian Waffle’s all-time favourite Fellaini continues to be one of the best box-to-box players in the Premier League. Witsel has been a revelation at Benfica, really proving himself in the Champions League and in my opinion, could go on to better things. His maturity at Standard last season was a joy to behold.
Defour, now playing at rivals Porto has been a bit-part player but both will want to avoid injury as they could face each other two days after this friendly. Leekens joked that Benfica could come to the airport to pick up Witsel if they wanted, and take Defour in their luggage. Ever-present veteran Timmy Simons, well isn’t that for this game and Radja Nainggolan is another option, as he claims some impressive suitors in Italy.
The fluid front three of the qualifying campaign remains, as do the number of players capable of playing in it. Leekens has gone with the ever popular Eden Hazard, as his time at Lille comes to a close. Your guess is as good as mine at where he’ll end up next season. On the opposite flank will be FC Twente’s Nacer Chadli, deputising for the injured Dries Mertens. Those to miss out on a starting place include world-class (according to Martin Jol) Moussa Dembele and Chelsea-bound Kevin De Bruyne. AZ Alkmaar’s Maarten Martens also withdrew due to injury.
Now the problem position – the frontman. Just like England, Belgium don’t appear to have many options. Leekens has gone all sentimental, and probably made the right call picking Kevin Mirallas, who of course plays for Olympiakos. Mirallas has been on the fringes of the national team for a while, but impressive form has finally swayed the coach to pick him and he goes into the starting line-up. If you can do it against them regularly why not?
Romelu Lukaku remains isolated at Chelsea and isn’t picked here either but remains in Leekens’ plans. Monchengladbach’s Igor De Camargo and Lokeren’s Benjamin De Ceulaer complete the list – De Ceulaer has been firing the goals in for Lokeren (6 in 6) and has said he’s felt small fry compared to some of the big names. I half want Leekens to give him a go, just because it would be interesting.
You could probably argue that this game of football probably doesn’t feature too highly on the agenda of national importance, or it could indeed provide a welcome distraction (yes I am referring to Greece defaulting, I will shy away from further real news mentions)
Hopefully this won’t sound too ill-informed but nothing about this Greece side scares me, there’s no real big names. Yet they crucially have experience of playing alongside each other, with only six playing outside of Greece and the bulk of the side playing at Panathinaikos or Olympiakos. The squad is a good mixture of youth with the old guard.
Names that may sound familiar – Euro 2004′s heroes Giorgos Karagounis and Kostas Katsouranis plus Celtic’s Heraklion lumberjack-looking Georgios Samaras
They certainly shouldn’t be underrated (despite this section doing so through a lack of research) as Greece topped Group F remaining unbeaten, edging out Croatia and Israel. They were also unbeaten since a dismal 2010 World Cup showing, until their last game with Romania. Fernando Santos’ record since taking over from Otto Rehagel is certainly impeccable. I may mock Greece but they’ve qualified for four tournaments (and miraculously won one) since Belgium last qualified for one so they’re aren’t to be underestimated as Vincent Kompany said in a press conference.
This is an opportunity for both to experiment and it should be interesting to see how comes out on top.
Tagged Ajax, Anderlecht, Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Axel Witsel, Belgium, Benfica, Benjamin De Ceulaer, Bologna, Chelsea, Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard, Euro 2012, Genk, georges leekens, Greece, Igor De Camargo, Iker Casillas, jan Vertonghen, Jean-Francois Gillet, Kevin De Bruyne, Kevin Mirallas, Laurent Ciman, Lille, Maarten Martens, Manchester City, Manchester United, Marouane Fellaini, Nacer Chadli, Nicolas Lom, Olympiakos, Porto, Radja Nainggolan, Romelu Lukaku, Sebastien Pocognoli, Silvio Proto, Simon Mignolet, Spurs, Standard Liège, steven defour, Sunderland, Thibaut Courtois, Thomas Vermaelen, Timmy Simons, Toby Alderweireld, UEFA, Victor Valdes, Vincent Kompany, Zenit St Petersburg