Roy Hodgson’s one and only home fixture as England manager before this summer’s European Championships is a tricky fixture.
Belgium have an abundance of young, quality talent which suggests that they would have made their presence felt in Poland and Ukraine if they had qualified for the tournament.
However, losing to a team that failed to reach the finals would not be the best send-off for England, especially after their uninspiring 1-0 win over Norway in Hodgson’s debut.
Here are seven predictions for how Saturday’s clash at Wembley will turn out.
Hazard’s protracted teasing of the media over which club he was going to join this summer upon leaving Lille was possibly the closest football has ever come to LeBron James’ infamous live broadcast, “The Decision.”
This week we were finally put out of our misery, with confirmation that the 21-year-old playmaker would be taking his talents to Stamford Bridge in a £32-million move.
Hazard is one of the most promising young talents in world football, but having played for a French club for the past five years, very few fans in England will have seen him play beyond a few clips on YouTube.
Given the amount of fever he has whipped up around himself, Hazard will have to deliver an almighty performance at Wembley for him to fully justify the hype in the eyes of many.
There is already a noticeable Belgian presence in English football.
The likes of Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen, Everton midfielder Marouane Fellaini and Fulham forward Moussa Dembele are all established stars in the top flight.
Chelsea have a young, attacking contingent of Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne—as well as the incoming Hazard—waiting to break through, and defender Jan Vertonghen could be on his way to Tottenham.
Still, with other players such as Ajax defender Toby Alderweireld, FC Twente midfielder Nacer Chadli and PSV Eindhoven striker Dries Mertens (pictured) all potentially on display just as the summer transfer window opens, there is every chance English clubs will try to snap up even more of Belgium’s young talents in time for the new season.
With such a short time to prepare before England’s huge Group D match against France on June 11, Hodgson was always going to have very little time to experiment with his side.
The manager, who has always thrived on consistency and ensuring his players are well drilled as a tight unit, has already suffered two blows: Midfielders Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry will both miss the tournament due to injury.
Given the pressing nature for Hodgson to have his key players as well prepared for that clash with Les Bleus as possible, expect him to field his first 11 for the run-out against Belgium on Saturday.
Having said that, the England boss still needs to give several players some game time before they jet off to Eastern Europe.
Jordan Henderson was a controversial selection on the stand-by list, but following Lampard’s injury, the Liverpool midfielder with just one cap to his name—and that was in a wholly uninspiring performance against France in 2010—now finds himself in the squad.
Arsenal winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could do with adding to his lone senior cap if he is to be a more effective impact player during the tournament. The rehabilitation of goalkeeper Robert Green’s international career was taken care of against Norway, where he played the full 90 minutes, but the likes of Jermain Defoe may yet get a second-half sweat on.
One of the major causes for optimism in the England camp to have arisen since the debacle of their 2010 World Cup campaign has been the emergence of Ashley Young.
The winger got his first senior start during England’s Euro 2012 qualification campaign and has responded by taking to international football with consummate ease.
Young scored three goals in qualifying, the joint-most for England along with three other players, and his goals in recent friendlies against Netherlands and Norway saw him become the first England player since Wayne Rooney to score in four straight games.
With Rooney suspended for the first two group matches and England likely to have international novice Andy Carroll leading the line, Young now finds himself the most important factor in the England attack.
In 19 previous meetings with Belgium, England have won on 14 occasions and only lost once. That defeat, a 3-2 loss in the Benelux nation, came in 1936.
They have only played each other twice in the last three decades. A 2-1 friendly win for Kevin Keegan’s England came at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light in 1999, nine years after their World Cup second-round clash in Italy was settled by David Platt’s dramatic injury-time winner.
Given the head-to-head record, that England are gearing up for a major tournament under a new manager at Wembley and how this talented Belgium side may well grasp this final opportunity to prove themselves after the disappointment of not qualifying, a home win by the odd goal looks on the cards.
Even if England do not claim the narrow victory over Belgium predicted here, you can bet your bottom dollar that the pre-tournament excitement will prove too much for at least one pundit.
The saturation marketing campaigns for everything from high-definition televisions to barbecue sets, the photos of England’s footballers wrapped in St. George flags and the general optimism around a new manager are bound to convince someone in the media to pen a tub-thumping article about how England can emerge from Poland and Ukraine with their first European title.
Either that or, more likely, some poor sap will have their arm twisted into writing such a piece by an editor eager to revel in the whirlwind of online reader comments that will inevitably ensue.