No more excuses! Belgium must prove they are Europe's best against Italy

Marc Wilmots blamed Argentina’s allegedly negative tactics after their quarter-final exit at the 2014 World Cup, but there can be no such excuses if they come up short this time around.

 Wilmots has been over the side since 2012.
Wilmots has been over the side since 2012.

WHEN IT WAS announced last November that Belgium had climbed to the summit of FIFA’s world rankings, Damien Duff best encapsulated the scepticism of many neutrals when he confessed, “It doesn’t sound right. Especially when [Marouane] Fellaini is playing for them.”

While the Manchester United midfielder’s merits as a footballer are still very much open to debate, it is perhaps unfair that his nation’s high standing is viewed with such wariness. This, after all, is a team that reached the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup and has lost just twice in the intervening two years – only once in a competitive fixture.

Belgium may no longer be number one in the world. That honour now belongs to Argentina, their conquerors in Brazil. Furthermore, Belgium have arrived in France as the highest-ranked European side in the tournament.

Of course, for many, FIFA’s ratings are as unreliable an indicator of quality as regular game time at Old Trafford these days, but one look at Marc Wilmots’ squad underlines why Belgium should fear nobody at Euro 2016.

Admittedly, the absence of Vincent Kompany is a significant loss for Wilmots, depriving the Belgium boss of not only his captain but also his best defender. It is no coincidence that, after conceding just five times in their 10 qualifiers, the Belgians have shipped as many goals in their four uninspiring outings so far this year.

However, Eden Hazard argued after the recent friendly with Finland that a likely back four of Toby Alderweireld, Jason Denayer, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen could hardly be considered weak – especially when they will be further protected by Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

“We have quality in defence,” the Blues winger insisted. “And up front, we have maybe the best generation of players.”

While there are understandable concerns over Courtois’ form over the past 12 months, and the decision to pair the rusty, injury-prone Vermaelen with the 20-year-old Denayer at the heart of the defence, rather than redeploy one of the Tottenham centre-halves playing as full-backs, it is hard to argue with Hazard’s lofty assessment of Belgium’s attacking arsenal. Wilmots has the kind of selection headache that nearly all of his counterparts would relish.

Romelu Lukaku is set to lead the line in Belgium’s tournament opener against Italy but Michy Batshuayi is coming off the back of a sensational season at Marseille, while Divock Origi has propelled himself back into the contention after making a rapid return from injury.

Let us not forget that Belgium can also call upon the services of Christian Benteke, who has struggled at Liverpool but was acquired at a cost of £32.5 million just 12 months ago.

Elsewhere, Dries Mertens and Hazard look set to start in support of the sole striker but Wilmots also has Yannick Carrasco in reserve, with the former Monaco man having proved his ability to make an impact at the highest level in last month’s Champions League final.

Belgium even have an enviable surplus of quality in midfield, as evidenced by the fact that Mousa Dembele, one of the players of the Premier League season, is likely to be left on the bench, with Radja Nainggolan and Axel Witsel set to get the nod in the middle of the park.

Belgium do not only have the players, though – they also have the form. This is a team on a remarkable upward curve. The Red Devils were ranked 66th in the world in 2009 yet managed to propel its way to the summit of the standings by the end of last year.

Wilmots, for his part, has tried to control the hype surrounding what will be the fourth-youngest side at Euro 2016. However, even he admitted last December that Belgium now believe they can hold their own against any opposition. “Against Italy [last month] we proved that we now belong among the very best.”

That 3-1 win may have only come in a friendly but it is worth noting that the Belgians had lost their 12 previous clashes with the Azzurri. This new generation is clearly not weighed down by the past. However, the pressure could be an issue.

Belgium Bosnia-Herzogovina Euro Soccer Source: Associated Press

Two years ago in Brazil, Belgium seemed inhibited. They never convinced at the World Cup; never cut loose. True, they matched Argentina for long periods but never really threatened to score. Yet Wilmots lashed out at the full-time whistle.

“If I played that way I would have been destroyed by the Belgium press,” he said. “We were not impressed by Argentina, they were just ordinary.”

The truth was, though, that if the Albiceleste had been ordinary, Belgium had been mediocre. His players had failed to step up. They hadn’t failed to take their chances; they failed to create any.

What are they
really like?

Rare insights on sport's biggest names from the writers who know them best. Listen to Behind the Lines podcast.

Become a Member

It is perhaps for that reason that many neutral observers remain unconvinced by Belgium’s status as dark horses in France. Certainly, Belgium’s recent form has done nothing to dissuade the doubters. There was a highly fortuitous 1-1 draw with Finland, with Lukaku netting a late equaliser against a side that lost their previous five fixtures, and a very patchy performance in a come-from-behind 3-2 win over Norway.

The defence now looks vulnerable, of course. However, perhaps Kompany’s absence is now being felt even more on a mental level. As even Hazard admits, Belgium are guilty of great inconsistency. “We are showing at times that we are a good team and that at other times, we are not as good,” he stated after the Norwegian clash. Therefore, losing the man that Hazard calls “our leader” can only raise doubts about the Belgians’ ability to fulfil their obvious potential.

However, the fact is that even without Kompany, this is truly a golden generation of players and the same could most certainly not be said of their opponents, Italy, who have arrived in Lyon with one of the weakest Azzurri squads in history.

In that sense, there can be no excuses if Belgium fail to lay down an early marker on Monday evening. Golden generations come and go. Only winners are remembered.

As Wilmots said of Belgium’s ascent to the summit of the world rankings last December, “We’re all happy, but it’s not a title…”

The42 is on Snapchat! Tap the button below on your phone to add!

Dare to stop Zlatan, and Ireland can dare to dream

Hodgson hits out at ‘disrespectful’ Bale comments: Don’t question England’s desire

About the author:

The42 Team

Read next: