For 12 months leading into this World Cup, Belgium, managed by Marc Wilmots, have consistently been referred to as "dark horses." Quite how a side with a host of players known for their quality can be considered "dark horses" is a mystery, but nonetheless they were seen as a side who could challenge the established elite.
Their place in the quarter-finals suggests their pre-tournament billing as a nation capable of lifting the trophy was correct. Next up for them is Argentina, their opponents in Brasilia on Saturday, who have looked far from perfect in their four matches but possess a formidable mix of attacking players. It looks set to be a classic.
Vincent Kompany's importance to Belgium cannot be underestimated. A leader on and off the field, he is one of the finest centre-backs in world football. He is a slight doubt for their quarter-final after suffering a groin strain in the 2-1 win over the US in the round of 16, a story which will be familiar to fans of Manchester City, and Wilmots will desperate to make sure his captain is available.
Just like he is for City, Kompany is Belgium's most important defender, the man who others look to for inspiration and leadership. He's a remarkable player, combining strength, speed, aerial ability, intelligence and a superb tackling ability.
He's what Gary Neville calls a proactive defender, one who seeks to get in front of forwards and win the ball before they take a touch, rather than step off and let them turn. It leads to some hairy moments, with the chances of picking up cautions increased when adopting such a style, but when it works, as is often the case, he looks unbeatable.
Last season for City, with Manuel Pellegrini ushering in a new attacking style based around an open 4-2-2-2 system, Kompany was afforded little protection, far less than under previous boss Roberto Mancini. With two full-backs encouraged to go forward and without an out-and-out defensive midfielder, Kompany has been way more exposed under the Chilean.
For Belgium, it's a very different picture. With Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen playing as full-backs, and with Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini screening the back four, Wilmots' system is far more defensive, meaning Kompany's job is somewhat easier.
There have been times last season when City's front six would all burst forward. It was exhilarating to watch, and their Premier League title triumph proved it was successful, but for Kompany, who was used to Mancini's penchant for a defensive midfielder, it must have come as a shock. There's less pressure on him for his country, and so far at this World Cup he's looked comfortable.
Factor in the protection he receives behind him, and all of a sudden his job of playing for Belgium appears far less difficult than at club level. Thibaut Courtois is a far more solid goalkeeper than Joe Hart, and certainly much less reckless. Ask any defender about the importance of a 'keeper who inspires confidence, and they will all agree it's vitally important.
Off the field, however, his role is identical at both club and international level. As captain, he is the face of both teams, regularly doing the media rounds and communicating to the fans on behalf of the squad. It's a role he's excelled in, becoming a slick orator who talks in an impassioned and insightful way. His thoughtful, intelligent interviews have become a big part of his captaincy.
What's clear is that, for both City and Belgium, he inspires confidence in those around him. Knowing he is there makes other feel more confident. There have been times at City during the past two seasons where his absence has adversely affected them to an unfathomable degree. It's arguable he's their most important player, rivalled only by David Silva.
He will be hoping to shake off his groin problem and inspire his Belgium teammates to victory over Argentina. He told The Guardian ahead of the game: "If Argentina decide to play their usual attacking game, we’ll have a pretty good chance against them."
Their chances are certainly increased with his involvement. Just like at City.
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