The date of 20 May 2006 marks the last time Belgium faced Slovakia. Few now may remember the 1-1 draw with much clarity but it heralded the debut of a young player of whom a lot was expected – a young player, who has come an awful long way.
When René Vandereycken replaced Luigi Pieroni with Mousa Dembélé at half-time, he was then known as Moussa Dembélé, he was playing for Willem II and he was thought of as a striker. Almost seven years on, he has established himself as one of the top midfielders in thePremier League and for my money at least, is an essential first-choice member of Marc Wilmots’ best midfield.
“I suppose I will play in central midfield. I think the national team coach sees me more and more in that position. There is a lot of competition but that has to be my spot,” he told Sporza in the build up to tonight’s game.
Dembélé’s unique set of qualities have served him well as part of AZ’s title-winning side, Fulham in the post Roy Hodgson era and now Tottenham under André Villas-Boas with the Antwerpen-born star outstanding in the 3-2 away win against Manchester United – the only time the Premier League leaders have lost at Old Trafford in the league this season.
“I play there now for Tottenham as well. In that position I can make the most of my ability to make runs and my understanding of the game. I can also play different roles, sometimes defensive and sometimes more attacking.
“I feel good at Tottenham. In the beginning I had to fit in. Tottenham is a real top club. Other clubs always play very deep against us. At Fulham I had more room. I hang out a lot with Jan Vertonghen. We don’t live far from each other. They laugh sometimes at the club because they always see us together.”
Dembélé will be joined in midfield by Axel Witsel, who like Zenit team-mate Nicolas Lombaerts is in need of match sharpness having only played some non-intensive friendly games since the middle of December.
With Everton hosting Manchester United this weekend, it seems unlikely that their talismanic midfielder Marouane Fellaini will be risked. Coach Wilmots has done well to defuse the controversy surrounding Maro, who was seen out until five in the morning just hours before he was due to report for training. The ex-Standard man is believed to have a hip problem and Wilmots will doubtless not want to risk the wrath of David Moyes.
As agreed before the last friendly against Romania, Torino’s veteran campaigner Jean-François Gillet will start between the sticks with a defence of Toby Alderweireld, Daniel van Buyten, Lombaerts and Vertonghen in front of him.
Upfront, Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku are slated to play 45 minutes each. One of the most intriguing developments of late in Belgian football has been the rapid improvement in both strikers thanks to regular Premier League football. Benteke has 10 goals in a struggling Villa side while Lukaku has scored 9 for surprise packages West Brom but with a better goals-to-minutes ratio. So exciting has it been that it has turned into a sort of arms-race between the two and they have both talked of the friendly rivalry that exists.
When he’s not the topic of a ballboy polemic, eating hamburgers outside the ground or tantalising us all with a never-ending transfer soap, Eden Hazard is an outstanding player. In my view however, after 33 caps and 2 goals, he is still yet to produce anything like his best form for the national side and on merit alone does not warrant a guaranteed starting spot, as Courtois and Kompany do. Nevertheless, one barometer for Wilmots’ success will be how he coaxes the best out of his most talented attacking weapon and time is of course on Hazard’s side. It is to be hoped he will not have to be indulged for too much longer.
Wilmots was honest enough to admit that he would rather this game not have been played, coming as it does sandwiched in between two weekends of football. Many of his players are involved in title races and European competition and he does not wish to overburden his charges. Nevertheless, it will be nice to see the senior side in Brugge, 24 hours after the under-21 outfit performed well against their Spanish counterparts with Massimo Bruno, Koen Casteels, Junior Malanda and Ibrahima Cissé my pick of the bunch [though by no means the only impressive performers].
The match kicks off at 2045 CET [1945 GMT].