Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team 2018 World Cup previews. With less than a month to go until this summer’s tournament, it’s time to get familiar with each of the 32 teams participating in Russia. First up in Group G is Belgium.
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Our writers say: On paper, Belgium’s golden generation is a collection of indisputable world-beaters. With the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Vincent Kompany on their roster, Les Diables Rouges should leave even the most seasoned rivals quaking in their boots. But the perennial dark horses have failed to deliver at the last two major tournaments, leading many to suspect this is their final chance to show what they can really do. While the phrase “World Cup-winning manager Roberto Martinez” sounds fairly implausible, Belgium has the firepower to progress from the group stage and go deep in Russia. — Ryan Bailey
(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exaggerated)
World Cup appearance: 14th
Best World Cup finish: 4th place (1986)
2014 finish: Lost in the quarterfinals to Argentina
Qualifying: Topped UEFA Group H ahead of Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina
Schedule: Panama (Monday, June 18, 11 a.m., FS1), Tunisia (Saturday, June 23, 8 a.m., Fox), England (Thursday, June 28, 2 p.m., Fox/FS1)
Manager: Roberto Martinez
Captain: Eden Hazard (F)
Top players: Kevin De Bruyne (M), Hazard, Jan Vertonghen (D), Dries Mertens (F), Romelu Lukaku (F), Thibaut Courtois (G)
Full 23-man squad
Why they’ll win games: Because their front four – which isn’t really a front four, but their four most impactful attacking players – are better than any equivalent four at the tournament. Lukaku, Hazard, Mertens and De Bruyne will wreak havoc on Panama and Tunisia, and, frankly, could run rampant over knockout stage opponents as well. But the eye-popping talent doesn’t stop there. Mousa Dembele, on his day, is indomitable. The back three, at one time or another, were among the English Premier League’s best. And Courtois can be world-class. Never mind tactics – Belgium simply has too many standout players to be considered anything less than a contender.
Why they’ll lose games: Well, we can’t just ignore tactics. And Belgium’s are reckless. Martinez has seemingly picked his formation to get as many of his best 11 players on the field at once. That often isn’t conducive to success, because it’s an admission that the shape and system aren’t preferable in a vacuum. The back three are great, but there’s a lack of protection for them. And wingers get shunted into the left wingback role because Belgium doesn’t have anybody remotely capable of playing that position. So Vertonghen can get left out on an island. In general, Belgium is going to try to outscore teams; when the attack is repelled, Martinez and the Red Devils are going to have problems.
How they’ll play: With three central defenders, one holding midfielder, and De Bruyne as the second center mid in a role similar to the “free 8” he plays at Manchester City. In front of him are the other three dynamite forwards that allow Belgium to hit opponents on the counter. In fact, they’re so quick and skilled that they can almost create breaks out of nothing. Lukaku’s ability to win 50/50s and bring Hazard and Mertens into play gives Belgium quick-strike potential. And overall, it gives the attack an appealing variety.
Projected lineup (3-4-2-1): Thibaut Courtois; Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen; Thomas Meunier, Kevin De Bruyne, Mousa Dembele, Yannick Carrasco; Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens; Romelu Lukaku.
Axel Witsel could be preferred to Dembele in midfield. Against stronger opponents, both could play, with Mertens dropping to the bench. But against Tunisia and Panama, those aforementioned front four will all likely play. And Radja Nainggolan isn’t an option – Martinez left him off the roster, and the Roma midfielder subsequently announced his international retirement.
The one other question mark is Kompany’s fitness. If he misses out, LAFC’s Laurent Ciman could be the replacement.
What makes them unique: Belgium, as a nation, is interesting because it comprises two distinct cultural and linguistic groups: the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish. The squad inevitably reflects the country’s demographic makeup. Kompany, however, grew up bilingual. In the past, he’s been integral in bridging the divide between the two groups and bringing together various locker room cliques.
Why to root for them: They’re a great bet to lead the tournament in goals per game. And they have a real chance to win this thing.
Why to root against them: They’re also a great bet to fall once again in the quarterfinals, once they come up against a more coherent, mechanized version of themselves.
If you’re going to watch one game … Waiting for the finale is risky, because it could mean next to nothing. You’re watching Belgium for its attacking flair, so you really can’t go wrong here.
Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan
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• 2018 World Cup preview hub
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• FC Yahoo Mixer: The Ronaldo vs. Messi debate
• A tactical guide to the 2018 World Cup
• How Vladimir Putin can use the World Cup to his benefit