Belgium u21 v Spain u21: Witnessing the benchmark first-hand

KV Mechelen’s soon-to-be expanded Achter De Kazerne stadium hosts tonight’s u21 friendly between Belgium and their Spanish counterparts. It promises to be a formidable test for the Little Devils as they take on the reigning European champions at this level even though Spain’s coach Julen Lopetegui has included a lot of new faces promoted from the successful u18 and u19 sides.

Belgium’s under-21 side failed to qualify for this summer’s European Championships, which will see Spain look to defend their title in Israel. Coached now by former international midfielder Johan Walem who succeeded Francky Dury, les Diablotins could only finish a distant third behind group winners England and Norway. They did at least manage to round off the campaign with a 5-0 win against bottom side Iceland.

The most recent friendly away to Israel saw Alpaslan Öztürk (who has since declared for Turkey) give Belgium the lead only for Walem’s men to be blown away by a four goal blitz. Such a defeat need not have come as a surprise to a side with just that one win over Iceland in the last six encounters.

And yet there is hope for optimism for several reasons. Firstly, it is to be hoped that the recent upturn in fortunes and the accompanying feel-good factor will trickle down to the under 21s. Secondly and more importantly, without having recourse to the Johan Boskamp hype machine, there are quite a number of promising players to choose from who have been playing regular first-team football this season. Finally, while the young make-up of the senior squad, allied to its strength, mean that few will be pushing for spots in Marc Wilmots’ squad in the short-term, it can be no bad thing for these youngsters to have role models close to home.

Colin Coosemans has established himself as the first-choice goalkeeper at Waasland-Beveren this season after being one of several victims of Club Brugge’s goalkeeping game of musical chairs. Perhaps promoted too quickly in order to cope with the demands of a big club (not everyone is Thibaut Courtois), he is reaping the benefits of regular football elsewhere but he needs to learn to command his box better. Koen Casteels has unfortunately been pushed down the pecking order at Hoffenheim following the arrival of Gomes from Spurs.

Zulte Waregem midfielder Thorgan Hazard (Photo Credit: Swing59)

Zulte Waregem midfielder Thorgan Hazard (Photo Credit: Swing59)

By virtue of his name alone, Jordan Lukaku is the best-known defender in the squad but at just 18, has time on his side. As much a left winger as a full-back, the expected departure of Behrang Safari and the unwillingness of his club to pay over-the-odds for international team-mate Laurens De Bock, may open up an opportunity for him at Anderlecht next season. Lukaku’s club colleague Michaël Heylen is an exciting young centre-half, who was named in the best eleven following the group stage of the NextGen Series ; unsurprisingly his coach John van den Brom is believed to be an admirer. Dino Arslanagic has been given a taste of the big time at Standard while Club Brugge newcomer De Bock found the going very tricky last weekend playing at centre-half ; he had been an outstanding left-back at Lokeren.

As with the senior side, the most riches are to be found in midfield. Massimo Bruno and Dennis Praet have broken through at Anderlecht this year ; the latter having been earmarked as the homegrown successor to Pär Zetterberg. Junior Malanda was the subject of interest from Fulham among others ; the central midfielder has been one of the major surprises this season along with his team Zulte Waregem – he shares with Praet maturity beyond his years. His club-mate Thorgan Hazard has also exceeded expectations, finding Waregem more conducive to his game than Lens while Paul-José Mpoku is beginning to reap the benefits of the faith shown in him by new Standard coach Mircea Rednic.

Managers and players alike have fallen by the wayside at Club Brugge this season but Maxime Lestienne has stood up to the plate, even when the chips were down. Despite the upheaval, that he has managed to cement a spot for himself is still no mean feat and the fearless wide man is a joy to watch. Michy Batshuayi provided one of the best assists in the Pro League this season for Jelle van Damme two games ago. Igor Vetokele has found game time hard to come by at FC København, a three-week injury notwithstanding but he did score twice in the recent win over Iceland.

Spain’s squad includes the likes of Suso from Liverpool, Arsenal defender Ignasi Miquel and Barcelona’s Gerard Deulofeu. It’s a chance for the Belgian side to witness the teamwork, technique and cohesion at close quarters as they prepare for a 2015 qualifying group including my own Northern Ireland.

The game kicks off at 2000 CET [1900 GMT].

Belgium u21 squad in full:

Goalkeepers: Colin Coosemans (Waasland-Beveren), Koen Casteels (Hoffenheim)

Defenders: Pierre-Yves Ngawa (Sint-Truiden), Dino Arslanagic (Standard Liège), Laurens De Bock (Club Brugge), Michaël Heylen, Jordan Lukaku (both RSC Anderlecht), Bryan Verboom (Zulte Waregem), Jonathan Vervoort (FC Eindhoven)

Midfielders: Massimo Bruno, Dennis Praet (RSC Anderlecht), Ibrahima Cissé, Paul-José Mpoku (both Standard Liège), Thorgan Hazard, Junior Malanda (both Zulte-Waregem), Hannes Van Der Bruggen (KAA Gent)

Strikers: Michy Batshuayi (Standard Liège), Maxime Lestienne (Club Brugge), Igor Vetokele (FC København)

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