Can Belgium fulfil their huge potential at Euro 2016?
Belgium’s golden generation is approaching their peak and, despite the loss of captain Vincent Kompany to injury, many will be expecting Marc Wilmots’ side to impress at Euro 2016.
Quarter-finalists at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Belgium were ranked the number one team in the world until a few weeks ago and they can no longer be treated as dark horses.
Belgium are rightly being considered among the pre-tournament favourites, with Italy, Sweden and Republic of Ireland the countries they will face in the group stage.
Wilmots’ men could have received a much easier draw, but if they have ambitions to go deep into the tournament they will face better sides along the way.
Kompany’s absence a blow
Belgium must have been prepared for their skipper missing Euro 2016 due to his well-known injury problems, but his unavailability will still be disappointing for Wilmots.
Kompany managed to play only a few minutes of Manchester City’s Champions League semi-final second leg against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu stadium before succumbing to injury – his 33rd in eight years.
The 30-year-old soon confirmed he will miss Euro 2016 in a post on his official Facebook page.
“I’ll miss the Euros. To me that’s very sad news,” Kompany wrote. “I could be standing here, feeling sorry for myself. I could fear for my career, as others may do. I could give up.
“That is not me. I decide on my future. There is a bigger picture to everything in life and only failing to see it, will cause me to fail. I am a hard worker and a fighter and if you are too, then you know that, to people like us, success can come in many forms.
“We trust ourselves when the going gets tough. I have the greatest respect for those who overcome their personal challenges in life with a positive attitude. I want to live up to that.”
Kompany’s attitude is laudable but football moves on quickly – so who will profit from his bad luck?
Possible replacements for Kompany
Belgium are well-stocked for centre-backs and Wilmots is able to call upon the excellent Tottenham pair of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who are often asked to fill in as full-backs in international football as that is Belgium’s most obvious weakness.
Zenit’s Nic Lombaerts is a reliable presence in the middle of the back line, while 20-year-old Jason Denayer, a Manchester City defender on loan at Galatasaray, is expected to have a bright future.
Indeed, there are a lot of comparisons between Denayer and Kompany, who have similar family backgrounds and both came through the Anderlecht youth system before moving to City.
Barcelona’s Thomas Vermaelen has had injury problems of his own but would start for many of the teams at Euro 2016 if he was able to prove his fitness, while Belgium’s goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is regarded as one of the best young stoppers on the continent.
With Kompany ruled out of Euro 2016, Eden Hazard will be expected to wear the captain’s armband. Last season’s Premier League Player of the Year, Hazard has had a difficult campaign as Chelsea struggled to live up to their championship-winning success of the previous year.
Hazard did not open his Premier League account for the season until April, but three goals in his last three games has suggested he is coming back into form at the right time for his country.
Wilmots has an embarrassment of riches in attack, with Hazard able to link up with the outstanding Kevin De Bruyne, who has 17 goals and nine assists in all competitions this season, despite missing a chunk of the campaign with a knee injury.
Romelu Lukaku will be hoping he is selected to lead the line for Belgium after scoring 25 goals for Everton, but he faces competition from Liverpool pair Divock Origi and Christian Benteke.
Wilmots can also call upon Lukaku’s club team-mate Kevin Mirallas, Tottenham’s Mousa Dembélé, Napoli winger Dries Mertens, the talented 22-year-old Michy Batshuayi and Marouane Fellaini.
Although most would probably expect Belgium to get to at least the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, it will actually be their first European Championship since 2000, when they co-hosted the tournament with the Netherlands.
A four-game competitive winning streak means they should come into the event high on confidence despite the unfortunate loss of Kompany, with their only qualifying defeat coming against fellow qualifiers Wales, where they were beaten 1-0.
Belgium’s game against Italy – their opening match of the tournament – will be a sign of where they stand at Euro 2016. Intriguingly, the teams met at Euro 2000, where Wilmots and Italy’s coach Antonio Conte faced off on the pitch, with Francesco Totti and Stefano Fiore scoring in a 2-0 win.
One player to watch out for at this summer’s tournament is the extravagantly-tattooed box-to-box midfielder Radja Nainggolan, who is reported to be a transfer target for Chelsea after enjoying another superb season for Roma in Serie A.