Can Martinez get the best from his stars?
In De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, Belgium possess two players of the highest class. However, Wilmots never managed to get them to gel
Four years ago, Belgium were tipped as dark horses to win the World Cup in Brazil. In the event, that tournament was way too soon for the so-called “Golden Generation”. Marc Wilmots took the same squad to France for the Euros two years later, but there had been no progress.
Now Roberto Martinez has taken over, and under his leadership Belgium qualified for Russia with a record number of goals. Overall the preparation has been perfect, with the one caveat being that they have not yet achieved any decent results against the world’s top teams in official matches.
Martinez’s first game was a defeat by Spain, where the difference in quality was apparent from the first minute. The coach did successfully switch to a 3-4-2-1 formation for the qualifiers, but cracks began to show in later friendlies with Japan and Mexico.
Martinez has a fixed XI in his mind but there are concerns about a central midfield duo of Axel Witsel and Kevin De Bruyne once the knockout stage is reached. There is also the reliance on one or both of Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen keeping fit throughout the tournament.
Kompany looked good in the latter stages of the Premier League campaign but doubts remain about his ability to play in a string of important games. As for Vermaelen, he will lack match fitness unless he is brought into the Barcelona line-up now they have clinched the title.
Belgium undoubtedly have sufficient world-class players to make their mark on the tournament. They are also more experienced than they were in the two previous tournaments. But major questions remain about their ability to beat the best.
An unresolved issue relates to Radja Nainggolan. A major player in Serie A, he has not yet convinced Martinez that he’s needed. The coach recently said he would not be swayed by fans’ demands to include him in the squad, but he’s popular with the other players.
Finally, there is the inability of De Bruyne to do for Belgium what he does for Manchester City. He showed glimpses in the second half against Saudi Arabia in March but that’s not enough.
In De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, Belgium possess two players of the highest class. However, Wilmots never managed to get them to gel and now Martinez must show that he can.
Golden generation... Eden Hazard