By Robert-Jan Bartunek
BRUSSELS, June 7 (Reuters) - Comfortable qualification and a pool of young talent that is the envy of most of Europe make Belgium among the fancied teams at the World Cup, but a lack of experience and weak finishing could cut short their progress.
Bookmakers rank Belgium, playing in their first finals since 2002, as fifth favourites behind hosts Brazil, former winners Argentina and Germany, and defending champions Spain.
It is easy to see why. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is cementing his reputation at Atletico Madrid, captain Vincent Kompany shores up the back at Manchester City, a rich midfield contains the dazzling skills of Chelsea's Eden Hazard and giant Romelu Lukaku can crush defences.
On the eve of their qualifying campaign in 2012, a Belgian newspaper calculated that in terms of transfer fees, Belgium's starting 11 were the third most expensive in the world behind Brazil and Portugal.
The depth of talent goes beyond that starting 11 and, with an average age in the mid-20s, Belgium still have plenty of scope to improve.
The team's rise in the FIFA rankings from 68th four years ago into the top 10 is the result of a squad coming of age following players' big-money moves to foreign leagues that helped developed a tougher mentality.
The turning points for the squad were the appointment of coach Marc Wilmots in May 2012 and a 4-2 friendly victory over arch-rivals the Netherlands in August of that year.
Wilmots gels better with his squad than his predecessor Georges Leekens. Belgium have ground out wins when needed and shown flashes of brilliance, such as Lukaku's powering through the Croatia defence in October to secure Belgium's passage to Brazil.
However, recent friendly results before the finals, where the Red Devils will be in Group H with Algeria, Russia and South Korea, have been mixed.
Belgium missed good chances in their 2-0 loss to Colombia, had their defence picked apart by Japan in a 3-2 defeat last November and let slip a two-goal lead in March's 2-2 draw with Ivory Coast.
However, in the past month they have picked up, with an easy 5-1 win over Luxembourg in an unofficial encounter and a more impressive 2-0 victory over Sweden, Lukaku responsible for four goals in the two matches.
Still, Hazard's performances for Belgium are not as consistently good as those for his London club and the defence has proved shaky at times, although it was without Kompany for their two recent defeats.
Belgium's greatest challenge, though, may lie in its strike force.
Christian Benteke of Aston Villa was already blowing hot and cold, able to create goals out of nothing but also capable of missing gaping chances.
His torn Achilles means Belgium will rely on Lukaku alone up front, although he has prospered since his missed penalty for Chelsea in the early season UEFA Super Cup led to a loan spell at Everton.
They have also taken a gamble with Adnan Januzaj after the Brussels-born 19-year-old Manchester United forward, eligible for several countries, committed himself to Belgium in April.
Belgium also have midfielders who can find the net, notably Kevin De Bruyne, top scorer with four in qualifying who has refound his touch after a transfer from Chelsea to Germany's Wolfsburg.
Those players and others bring one positive aspect to the Belgium squad that was not the case in the past - so many of them are playing for top teams in top European leagues.
There are a trio of players at Tottenham Hotspur: Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele and Nacer Chadli. Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet is Liverpool's No.1 choice in goal, Thomas Vermaelen is at Arsenal, Daniel van Buyten at Bayern Munich.
Ultimately, however, whether Belgium can surpass their best World Cup result, fourth place in 1986, depends on their capacity to show the form they displayed in a solid, if unspectacular, qualifying campaign.
At least their players will not be overawed by playing in front of big, passionate crowds in impressive stadiums as they deal with that every week of the season. (Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; editing by Robert Woodward and Mike Collett)
- Sports & Recreation