On the sixth day of a thus-far thrilling World Cup, the fairest of dark horses Belgium will begin their quest to justify their plentiful pre-tournament hype. The pool of talent coming through in Belgium has been fawned over by many for years, but for the first time the so-called “golden generation” has begun to fulfill on their promise in order to qualify for the country’s first World Cup since 2002.
Qualifying was certainly impressive. In 10 games, there were eight wins, no defeats and just the four goals conceded. And it is easy to see why. Creative quality like Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, his former Blues’ teammate Kevin de Bruyne, Napoli’s Dries Mertens and Everton’s Kevin Mirallas are supplemented in midfield by the steel of Axel Witsel and Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini. Anchoring the back four is Manchester City’s Premier League title-winning captain Vincent Kompany, while the squad also happens to have the world’s best young goalkeeper and perhaps the world’s best goalkeeper, period, in Thibaut Courtois.
There is plenty more besides. In the buildup to the tournament, Belgium-born but multi-country-qualified Manchester United starlet Adnan Januzaj finally selected Belgium as the country he wanted to represent. It s the type of talent pool of which a country of just 11 million people and after a dormant period on the international stage can only dream.
But now the pressure arrives. Simply getting back to the World Cup stage will now not be good enough with so many quality players and so much talk having surrounded them for so long. Belgium last made a real impact on the world stage in 1986, when a team containing the likes of Enzo Scifo and Eric Gerets reached the semifinals in Mexico. Hope of a similar adventure in 2014 pervades. Still, current coach Marc Wilmots, who scored Belgium’s last World Cup goal 12 years ago, has dismissed the expectations surrounding the current team.
“Here there is no pressure,” he said, according to Reuters. “We have made huge step forward in just a few years so let's put things in perspective.
“The media have given us this tag [of a favorite], not us. I am not a coach who thinks that way. Ah yes, the golden generation.
"When we achieve something then we can talk about it. Now it is a generation which is hungry.”
Expectations have only been increased further since a favorable draw was handed to them in December. Belgium begin their campaign against Algeria at Belo Horizonte’s Estadio Mineirao on Tuesday, before matches against Russia and South Korea. In truth, it should not be overly taxing.
Yet, there are issues for Wilmot’s men to temper their ambitions. Chiefly, jey striker Christian Benteke tore his Achilles tendon in April and will miss the World Cup. Although Romelu Lukaku, who scored 15 Premier League goals on loan at Everton from Chelsea last season, is hardly a bad replacement, he doesn’t link with the team’s midfielders in quite the same way. And Hazard, while undoubtedly having flourished into a true elite player at Chelsea, has still to produce his best for his country.
A weakness persists in defense, too. As is often the way in the international arena, where teams can’t buy and sell players, Belgium have an obvious blind spot in their pool of talent. In this case it is at full-back. With no standout players in that position, Wilmots has decided to use the country’s strength at center-back to fill the void. It means Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are likely to be deployed out of their natural positions in Brazil.
Certainly, in the buildup to the match, Algeria coach Vahid Halilhodzic was not shy in n expressing his thoughts on where Belgium can be exposed.
“With the Belgian defense, they are not all Ferraris either, you know,” he said, reports the Associated Press. “Belgium does have a certain weakness here.”
As Belgium try to emulate the achievements of 1986, Halilhodzic has targeted an upset in the opening game that he believes could match the stir Algeria caused when beating West Germany in the 1982 World Cup. While trying to play giant-killing, Algeria will also see this World Cup as a real chance to make it out of the group phase for the first time in their history.
Four years ago, Algeria exited having failed to score a goal and having being widely derided for playing some of the most negative soccer in South Africa. Uncompromising defender and captain Madjid Bougherra remains, but there is reason to think that Algeria can entertain more this time around. Perhaps the chief cause for that optimism is Sofiane Feghouli. The attacking midfielder is a fine creative talent and registered 10 assists for Valencia in Spain’s La Liga last season.
Prediction: Feghouli will be confident of being able to take advantage of Belgium’s vulnerability down the outside of their defense. With a Belgium team that may not produce the exhilarating play expected, at least right away, and an Algeria side which could exceed the most modest of expectations, it is a contest that should be fairly closely fought. Algeria will pose Belgium problems, but the talent of Wilmot’s men may ultimately ensure a winning start.
Belgium 2-1 Algeria
Betting Odds (Bovada.lv)
Belgium win: 1/4
Algeria win: 10/1
When and where: The World Cup Group H match will kick off from Belo Horizonte’s Estadio Mineirao at noon ET.