This weekend sees England take on perhaps the most potential-ridden team in world football right now; Belgium.
The Belgians are currently mixing some of the best youngsters in the game with constantly-improving senior players in a formula that should be leading them up the world rankings and into major tournaments.
Unfortunately, under the misguidance of former manager George Leekens, they have managed to miss out on this summer’s showpiece event (draws at home to Azerbaijan and Austria proved costly as they missed out on the play-offs by two points). But they have a squad that in the upcoming years could produce more household names to take your immediate focus away from their infamous waffles and the great Eddie Mercx.
Much has been made of the hottest new talent in London, Eden Hazard, and the young attacker made his debut for Belgium at the tender age of 17 years and 316 days – turning down the offer of French citizenship to do so. His low centre of gravity and general ability to magic up some inspiration seemingly out of nowhere mean that Chelsea’s new asset will be the mainstay of his nation for the foreseeable future.
At the other end of the pitch, another one of Chelsea’s Belgian recruits, Thibaut Courtois, has been turning Spanish heads this season whilst on-loan at Atletico Madrid. Unfortunately for England fans, it is unlikely that we will see him feature this weekend as Sunderland’s Simon Mignolet looks set to get the goalkeeper jersey at Wembley.
Only signed at the beginning of the season, the young stopper was immediately loaned out to the Iberian capital to gain some crucial match experience. Whilst his parent club were winning the Champions League, Courtois was busy winning Europe’s second most sought after competition – the Europa League. 22 clean sheets in all competitions was rumoured to have been noted by Real Madrid, but Chelsea have one of Europe’s best young keepers on their books.
Centre-backs aside, the Belgian midfield looks set to be the strongest position of them all containing the likes of Marouane Fellaini, Steven Defour and the extremely impressive Axel Witsel.
An integral member of Benfica’s title-challenging squad, Witsel was one of the key reasons that the Eagles led the Portuguese Liga for so long before eventually succumbing to FC Porto. A bundle of energy and determination, you will often find Witsel harassing unsuspecting opponents and winning the ball back for his team in good positions. Far from being solely a terrier, though, the former Standard Liege man has a fantastic range of passing making him a solid all-round midfielder. His obvious potential has led to scouts from Real Madrid, Chelsea and AC Milan all linked and Benfica sporting director Rui Costa has already admitted that he is destined for one of Europe’s elite sides.
In a throwback to their old Liege days, Witsel is partnered in the national team midfield by the classy Steven Defour. The subject of intense scouting by Manchester United, Defour’s dreams of a move to Old Trafford seemed to fade each time he got injured. When he tore his cruciate ligament, Sir Alex Ferguson sent him a personalised card wishing him a speedy recovery and promised to keep watching him upon his return. Since then, he has moved to Witsel’s rivals FC Porto where he has subsequently won the domestic league. If he can stay injury-free, he could also be leaving Portugal for a bigger club and with his comfortable nature on the ball and fantastic passing and technical ability, there would a queue of clubs awaiting his departure.
As earlier mentioned, centre-back is a position in which Belgium are fantastically well-armed. Their plethora includes captain Vincent Kompany, who is turning into one of the best defenders in the world, Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Daniel van Buyten and Nicolas Lombaerts. That is an embarrassment of riches for a nation with the stature of Belgium and it could mean that Manchester City’s Dedryck Boyata has a long queue ahead of him if he is to make the step up.
Such is their class at the heart of the defence; Vermaelen is often employed as a left-back and Vertonghen as partner to Kompany. Premier League fans know all about the talents of Kompany and Vermaelen but they may soon be getting accustomed to Vertonghen too. Talk of him joining his Arsenal team-mate at the Emirates seems to have cooled following the Ajax defenders decision to nominate Tottenham as his preferred future destination. A classy, ball-playing centre-back, Vertonghen is the type of player you expect to be produced by the infamous Amsterdam academy and can often be found starting attacks from deep in his own half; such is his range of passing.
Alderweireld may well replace Vertonghen at Ajax, but do not be surprised to see him have a similar impact, a similar career path too once the big boys come back looking again.
Other Premier League players include strikers Moussa Dembele (Fulham) and Romelu Lukaku (again, Chelsea). Dembele has become an integral member of the Fulham side this season, operating as a deep-lying link-play forward or even as the defensive playmaker for Martin Jol’s side. His dribbling ability, vision and technique have all been on show this campaign and it is no surprise to see clubs such as Tottenham paying an interest in him.
Fans of the computer game Football Manager were extremely excited to see Lukaku pop up at Stamford Bridge, but have so far been disappointed. There is no doubt that he possesses all the raw talents to be a superstar at Chelsea, but his lack of playing time has infuriated him and he has threatened to quit the club unless he is loaned out or played more frequently.
A mountain of man for his tender age, Lukaku draws obvious comparisons to Didier Drogba and the Ivorian’s departure from London could be the opening Lukaku has been looking for. He has the potential to fill Drogba’s powerhouse boots – but he and Belgium will be hoping he gets the required game time soon.
Kevin De Bruyne (Chelsea) – De Bruyne makes the move to Stamford Bridge this summer and will soon be giving full-backs worries. His agility and dribbling ability, with added flair, could see him tormenting defenders next season.
Kevin Mirallas (Olympiakos) – Greece’s Player of the Year has finished the season with 20 goals in all competitions this year, firing Olympiakos to domestic league glory. Blessed with lightening pace, he will be one to watch in next season’s Champions League.
Radja Nainggolan (Cagliari) – 24-year-old midfielder Nainggolan was born in Belgium to an Indonesian father and moved to Italy when he was 15. The tall and tenacious midfielder is set to become one of the biggest names in European football in the coming years. His fantastic stamina and fitness levels mean he is perfectly suited to charging around midfields and breaking up opposition forays, but he is a clever player and can pick out a team-mate when he does have the ball. A move to Juventus seems inevitable sooner rather than later and Antonio Conte knows he will not only be getting one of the most consistent players in the league, but he will be getting a midfielder that has every attribute needed to become truly world-class.