World Cup: Chance for Bel­gium to shine

Lesotho Times - - Sport -

BRUS­SELS — Bel­gium is go­ing to a ma­jor tour­na­ment for the third straight time, and this once-in-a-life­time team could thrive all the way to the World Cup fi­nal.

With two games to spare, Bel­gium be­came the first Euro­pean na­tion to qual­ify for next year’s tour­na­ment in Rus­sia. And it did so on Sun­day by the mea­sure that has marked so many great teams: win­ning ugly.

For 70 min­utes, Greece held the star-stud­ded Bel­gium team in check with a strat­egy that can only be called su­per de­fen­sive — a tac­tic which the Bel­gians de­ployed to near per­fec­tion when­ever they con­sid­ered them­selves an un­der­dog. Then, two sparks of bril­liance, capped with a glanc­ing header from Romelu Lukaku, led the way to a 2-1 vic­tory.

With that, there is no more hiding from its role as a World Cup fa­vorite.

“Of course we go to Rus­sia to win,” Bel­gium goal­keeper Thibaut Cour­tois told the Het Laast­ste Nieuws daily. “You al­ways want to be the best.”

The Chelsea goal­keeper, like so many oth­ers on the squad, has a proven record at club level. But in­ter­na­tion­ally, he and oth­ers have un­der­per­formed.

The cre­ative quar­tet of Manch­ester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, Chelsea’s Eden Haz­ard, Napoli’s Dries Mertens and Manch­ester United’s Lukaku, along with de­fen­sive main­stays Cour­tois, Tot­ten­ham’s Jan Ver­tonghen and City’s Vin­cent Kom­pany, reached the quar­ter­fi­nals in Brazil three years ago. But back then, the ex­cuse was still youth and in­ex­pe­ri­ence as they lost to Ar­gentina with­out elic­it­ing much ex­cite­ment.

The 2016 Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship in France was the next test, but Bel­gium again failed to get past the quar­ter­fi­nals af­ter a sur­pris­ing loss to Wales.

Coach­ing blun­ders were blamed and Marc Wil­mots left, re­placed by Span­ish coach Roberto Martinez.

Af­ter a decade of coach­ing Premier League also-rans like Swansea, Wi­gan and Ever­ton, Bel­gium took the risk of hir­ing Martinez to mold its col­lec­tion of tal­ent into a tight team. So far, so good. Last week, the Bel­gians routed the part­timers of Gi­bral­tar 9-0, show­ing flair and charm in a match that was nearly im­pos­si­ble to lose. Then came the end­less plod­ding against Greece, the bad com­bi­na­tion play for most of the match, enough to have some doubt­ing again whether Martinez is the an­swer.

“It lacked the fi­nesse we nor­mally have,” said Martinez, who was still happy to see his team had the men­tal tough­ness to win when lit­tle went right. “That character could help us a lot on the way.”

The vic­tory ex­tended Bel­gium’s un­beaten streak to 11 matches, and Martinez can get the na­tional team record when his team plays Bos­nia-herze­gov­ina next month.

Such is the poise and prom­ise that qual­ify- ing for an­other big tour­na­ment, some­thing the Bel­gians failed to do be­tween 2002 and 2014, hardly mer­ited a cel­e­bra­tion.

“We are see­ing,” said Ver­tonghen, the team’s cap­tain, “that we are get­ting used to it.” — AP

BEL­GIUM’S Romelu lukaku (cen­tre) and his team­mates cel­e­brate at the end of the match be­tween Greece and Bel­gium on Sun­day.

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