Ahead of the tournament, some critics highlighted Belgium as one of the dark horses to win the World Cup.
Although it was always clear that such a feat was going to be difficult for the relatively young and inexperienced Rode Duivels, it was also apparent that Belgium had a squad oozing with talent.
At the back, Belgium have Vincent Kompany, captain of Premier League-winning side Manchester City. In midfield, they have the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and Axel Witsel, and up front there’s Chelsea superstar Eden Hazard.
All in all, it’s a fine generation of footballers, largely comprised of players from top competitions like the Premier League and Bundesliga.
During their qualification campaign, the Belgians played well, winning most of their matches and drawing only a handful. They finished top of their group comfortably.
For the first time since 1986, Belgium was going to a World Cup with a feeling of confidence and excitement. Gone were the days of their inferiority complex. Belgium had an assortment of players worthy of jealousy.
Outside of Belgium as well, a lot was expected of the Rode Duivels. There was a new contender on the block, and it was going to be interesting to see how far this newcomer would go.
But to the surprise of some World Cup spectators, Belgium did not play as impressively as was expected beforehand. Against Algeria, the Rode Duivels were forced to work hard to battle their way to a 2-1 win. The matches against Russia and South Korea were not eventful and ended in 1-0 victories.
Was this the Belgian side everyone had expected? Was this team really going to bomb forward and make an impression during the knockout stage of the tournament?
Maybe it was, because in the case of the Rode Duivels, eyes might deceive. During their qualifying campaign, manager Marc Wilmots had employed a style of play that was careful and deliberate. During the World Cup, the Belgians were simply doing what they had been doing all along: scoring just one more goal than the opponent.
What’s more, the Belgians conceded only once during the group stage, and that was from an unlucky penalty. All in all, the Belgians might not have performed as bad as a first glance would suggest.
But ahead of Belgium’s round-of-16 clash with USA, there is something else the Rode Duivels should be worried about: Now that there’s no more room for mistakes, how will they react to the pressure?
While most players in Belgium’s first XI have played in big leagues like the Premier League, very few of Belgium’s players have experience playing under pressure. According to The Telegraph, the average age of Belgium’s squad is 25.3. With an average age of 27.2, USA’s squad is almost two years older.
Furthermore, Belgium have little knockout-stage experience as a nation. The last World Cup Belgium came far in was held in 1986. Unlike teams like Brazil and Argentina, Belgium have no idea of what it’s like to have the whole world watching you.
During the group stage, Belgium could get away with smash-and-grabs and careful football. In the knockout stage, opponents will not be happy to settle for a draw. Rather, they’ll throw everything they have at the Rode Duivels.
During the knockout stage, there’s a lot more at stake, and a single error can send you home.
How will players who have rarely been in that type of situation react to the pressures that come with this crucial stage of the World Cup?
Now that it’s all or nothing, the time has come for Belgium to truly show what they’re worth.
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