This World Cup qualification campaign has thus far seen Belgium overcome some traditionally insurmountable hurdles, in recent times at least. Christian Benteke has emerged as a formidable presence upfront who can find the net and still dovetail with the plethora of talented midfielders. Furthermore, the impressive 0-3 away victory against Serbia in Belgrade showed an ability to win matches where the Rode Duivels may not necessarily have been considered as favourites. Given the failure to put away a mediocre at best Turkey in the previous campaign, that’s pretty significant.
Assuming that Benteke continues to supply the cutting edge in attack, there is one major hope for this series of qualifiers, the main goal of qualification for a finals tournament for the first time since 2002 aside. It is that the man widely seen as the biggest talent available to Marc Wilmots, namely Eden Hazard, dazzles on the international stage as he has done so brilliantly for Lille and more recently, Chelsea.
Hazard has amassed 34 caps since his debut and when he starts tonight, he will become the youngest Belgian to reach 35 caps ahead of Paul van Himst (who, incidentally, was coach for both of Belgium’s previous meetings with the Macedonians). His hitherto inability to reproduce his club form is not a problem, which is exclusive to the 22-year old but it was becoming ever clearer that he was struggling to make the step up to international football.
His age aside (for a lot has been put on his shoulders), one key reason has been the precarious managerial situation of les Diables Rouges. Georges Leekens brought stability to the post but he carried some unfortunate baggage – a long-standing inability to deal with superstars, which culminated in the now infamous hamburger incident.
When Mack the Knife was succeeded by his assistant Marc Wilmots, largely at the behest of the players, one of the barometers of his success as coach was always likely to be how he dealt with Hazard. As the former star player in the national side himself, it was expected that while he would indulge him more than Leekens, his own personal experiences would mean a much more favourable outcome for player, coach and country.
Wilmots, however, did not completely ignore the fact that a whole host of other players were clamouring for selection due to their outstanding club form – Dries Mertens in particular. The PSV man, who has the most assists in the Eredivisie this season, started the qualifier against Scotland at Hazard’s expense. Yet far from sulking, Eden came off the bench in the second half and set up the second goal for his captain Vincent Kompany.
In the most recent friendly with Slovakia last month, Hazard was outstanding in the first half. Much more confident (and fresh after his enforced rest due to Ballboygate), he broke forward with pace and committed Slovakian defenders without fear. His cross led to the penalty, which he was to convert with nonchalance and he combined intuitively with Kevin De Bruyne.
Wilmots was unhappy with his second-half performance but it’s understandable that players won’t be at full tilt for 90 minutes during a friendly sandwiched between two weekends of club football. That said, he played with a real swagger and much more belief in his own, considerabe ability. After a difficult mid-winter, he has also been outstanding for Chelsea in recent weeks, scoring a beauty at Old Trafford and running the show in the Europa League tie with Steaua Bucharest. Hazard admits it’s no coincidence:
“I am rediscovering the level I had at Lille at the end of last season,” he told La Dernière Heure. “I am a player who gets better over the course of a season. We’re in March now. It’s my lucky month, when I always play well.”
Hazard’s name has to be pencilled in alongside that of Kevin De Bruyne, who has arguably been the outstanding performer for Werder Bremen this season and is still owned by Chelsea. Hazard hopes that the ex-Genk midfielder will join him at Stamford Bridge next season (along with Romelu Lukaku) and this author hopes that the duo are in tandem this evening, in support of Lukaku’s rival for the lone striking role Benteke.
Vincent Kompany is unlikely to be risked in central defence having not played for over two months. His replacement Daniel van Buyten had a few nervy moments against Slovakia but has been enjoying an Indian summer at FC Bayern München of late. The 35-year old will slot in alongside captain Thomas Vermaelen. Long overdue though his demotion at Arsenal was, he still deserves to keep his spot in defence with former Ajax teammates Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen manning the fullback positions. With Macedonia’s ability to score early during this qualifying campaign, the defence will have to be on guard from kick off.
The composition of the midfield will be determined by whether or not Marouane Fellaini is selected. His supporters (and I am very much one since his Standard Liège days), will say his new-found goalscoring ability for Everton is too good to ignore, allied to his physical dominance. Others will say that Wilmots need not tinker too much with his tactical plan to accommodate Maro and the fact that it’s an away game in Skopje may make it easier to give the nod to his club colleague Kevin Mirallas.
FYR Macedonia are opponents who are not to be taken lightly and they have a number of players well-known in Belgium such as goalkeeper Tome Pacovski (KV Mechelen), forwards Ivan Trickovski (Club Brugge) and Aleksandar Trajkovski (Zulte Waregem) and their star player Goran Pandev (SS Napoli). They have already beaten Serbia at home and lost just 1-0 in Croatia but though they often start well, they fade later. Belgium have not always got been quick out of the blocks in this campaign and in four games, have yet to score in the opening 30 minutes.
Croatia and Belgium are locked together at the top of the standings but the upcoming double-header could alter the landscape of Group A. I’m going for a 0-2 win for Belgium and I hope that Eden Hazard will be the star of the show.
Edit: 1830 UK: Marc Wilmots has announced the team and it’s exactly as I had hoped with Kompany not being risked.
Belgium: Courtois ; Alderweireld, van Buyten, Vermaelen (c), Vertonghen ; Witsel, Dembélé, Fellaini ; De Bruyne, Benteke, Hazard.