Belgium international Axel Witsel was enjoying a midseason break with his Zenit St. Petersburg team-mates in Doha, Qatar, when we sat down for an exclusive chat for Bleacher Report this week.
Bleacher Report: Axel, how do you reflect upon 2014?
Axel Witsel: Good, I feel good. It was a good year for Belgium with the World Cup. The World Cup was a good experience. We lost in the quarter-finals, didn’t do better, but overall, it was good tournament, and we qualified well.
B/R: Did Belgium achieve on their potential at the World Cup?
AW: No, we didn’t achieve the maximum. Belgium has a young team, and it was the first World Cup for most players with the exception of Daniel van Buyten, I think. At Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, the next tournaments, we should try to improve on this one. It was good, but in my understanding, we can do better.
B/R: Was the pulsating game against USA Belgium’s best performance?
AW: That game was crazy. Both teams were going forward nonstop, and the level of intensity was so high. That’s why I say it was one of our best games.
B/R: What’s the future of Belgium’s golden generation?
AW: We first have to qualify for Euro 2016 and finish first in our qualifying group. We have to produce a good European campaign. For now, I can’t say that we should reach the final of the Euros. There are a lot of good teams, like Germany, Spain and Italy. It is going to be difficult. We have to train hard and we will see what happens at Euro 2016, but first, our mind should be on qualifying.
B/R: Within the Belgian group, would be it fair to say you are the “second captain”?
AW: Yes, I think I am a second captain in terms of responsibility and leadership. The coach gives me a lot of trust and I give a lot back on the pitch. He put me in the No. 6 position of defensive midfielder and I play well. It’s true that I have been in the national team for eight years, and so I start to be one of the older ones in the group. (Vincent) Kompany, (Jan) Vertonghen and me are the leaders.
B/R: How is your relationship in midfield with Marouane Fellaini and Kevin De Bruyne?
AW: It’s really good. I played with Fellaini at Standard Liege, so I know him well. I like to play with De Bruyne because he has good qualities. De Bruyne has the qualities to one day play in one of the top clubs of Europe. But I play well with everyone; Nacer Chadli and (Mousa) Dembele. It’s the same for me.
B/R: Looking at 2015, what are your ambitions?
AW: Firstly, to become champions with Zenit St. Petersburg. We have to. Secondly, to progress as far as possible in the Europa League and, thirdly, have a good qualification campaign with the Belgian team (for the Euros).
AW: No, these rumors are in the newspapers. I don’t know anything about it. I am here in Qatar training to be focused on my team, Zenit, and to try to regain a good physical condition. Even during the holidays, I did not think about leaving. I am focused.
B/R: Kompany, Hazard and Fellaini all play in the Premier League. Do you envisage yourself there?
AW: I want to play in one of the top clubs in Europe one day. It’s true that I like the Premier League, because it is one of the best leagues in the world, for me, together with Germany and Spain. It is a very good league; it is a crazy league. A lot of my colleagues play there, but we will see. I am still young, only 26. We’ll see in the future. I have always liked Manchester United from when I was young.
B/R: Being at Zenit, how has your game developed since 2012?
AW: The adaptation was not easy in the beginning. I was previously in Portugal with good weather, and the life was different from Russia. It was not easy for Hulk and me. After six months or the first year, I started to play better. When (Andre) Villas-Boas arrived at Zenit, he gave me a lot of trust. He put me in a higher position to be more offensive, and I got my game back. Last season was a good one, and I will do my best.
B/R: How is it to work with AVB?
AW: He is really a good coach. We train a lot with the ball, we train with goals and he mixes it up a lot. I have a good relationship with him. (Luciano) Spalletti was here for a long time, but with him I had a more defensive role. I like to be offensive and move forward, and that is the difference from a personal point of view. I play more offensively with Villas-Boas than during Spalletti’s time.
B/R: Last question—you are here in Qatar for a second time. You ply your trade in Russia. What do you think of both countries hosting the World Cup?
AW: The World Cup in Russia and to play there will be something special, because it is my third year at Zenit. I think it will be really good. In Qatar, it will be in 2022, I will be 33. Hopefully I will play, too. Qatar has the conditions to host the World Cup. The weather will be a problem, because in June and July, it is really hot here. But Qatar has everything to make this World Cup happen.