World Cup Insight: Which Superstar Can Turn Belgium into Champions?

Dean Jones@DeanJonesBRFootball Insider at Bleacher ReportOctober 10, 2017

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - AUGUST 31:  Romelu Lukaku (L) of Belgium celebrates scoring a goal with team mates Axel Witsel, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier between Belgium and Gibraltar at Stade Maurice Dufrasne on August 31, 2017 in Liege, Belgium.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Their line-up is the envy of nations across the world, and their star players make up the bulk of any good Fantasy Premier League side, but are Belgium going to live up to expectations next summer?

Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard are a trio that strike terror into any defence, but the Red Devils are made up of key players in almost every other position and cruised through qualifying to book their place at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

By banging in 39 goals during the European qualifiers, averaging four goals per game, they have made a statement.

But there are still questions about whether this golden generation will click when it matters.

If you are looking for a man to set the tone of a campaign, then Lukaku seems like the perfect starting point. He’s Belgium’s lead striker, the focal point of Manchester United, and a man born to score goals.

Lukaku has found the net 10 times during qualifying. He has twice as many goals as anyone else in the squad going into Tuesday night’s game with Cyprus.

But will boss Roberto Martinez get the £90 million forward at his best in Russia?

Before getting carried away by his 10-goal haul in qualifying it is worth considering that two came against Greece, three at home to Gibraltar, two vs. Cyprus, one against Bosnia, two late goals in an 8-1 drubbing of Estonia … not all exactly elite opposition.

And on a deeper level, there have been long-running questions about whether Roberto Martinez knows how to get the best from one of the world’s best forwards.

Michael De Asha is a writer for Everton Aren’t We and recalls their days together at Goodison Park.

"Throughout the time Roberto Martinez was at Everton, Lukaku was the one man who obviously stood out as the top player. For much of this time, it always seemed that Lukaku performed in spite of Martinez.

"The team were very rarely set up to play to his strengths, often looking to make intricate passes rather than simply playing the ball in behind for Lukaku to run onto, the clearest strength in his game.”

Patrick Boyland, freelance writer and director of Everton podcast The Blue Room, told me of similar memories—and fears Martinez has not changed his ways.

"Stylistic issues still plague Martinez," he said. "He's a predominantly dogmatic coach that doesn't always change to get the best out of those available to him.

"Yet in Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, Lukaku will, of course, have two of the best playmakers in the competition to partially negate any tactical flaws. If games become stretched, the trio could be devastating.

"A tally of 27 goals in 62 international games certainly isn't to be sniffed at, but there is still clearly room for improvement as—particularly in the major competitions—he has largely flattered to deceive."

MB Media/Getty Images

This is a regular issue that crops up when speaking with people about Lukaku. People agree he knows how to score a goal, but is he a player for the big occasion? And could Martinez hold him back? The next nine months will tell us the full story about his capabilities.

These are times when Belgium should be buzzing with anticipation about what their golden generation can achieve. But so many are not yet convinced they are the finished article.

Belgian fan Laura told me: "I am still sceptical. We are not bad in qualifying, but it was the same the last two times for us. Sure this team has great players—they prove it every week in all the big leagues across Europe. But I am not sure we have a team. We lack something to light the flame. A great coach could help for that and I am not sure Martinez is the right one for it.”

The questions about Martinez are brought up by almost everyone I speak to. A couple of sources even declared how it is an open secret in Belgium that he will leave after the World Cup.

Belgium's forward Eden Hazard (1st-R) drives the ball during the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belgium in Sarajevo on October 7, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ELVIS BARUKCIC        (Photo credit should read ELVI

There is still huge reason for optimism, though—because the individual stars on show in this side are capable of brilliance. And that’s where our focus should be. Barely any nation in the world can boast an armoury of top names quite like Belgium can.

Without doubt Dries Mertens has the potential to lift the team to another level if he replicates club form from Napoli. And when you look beyond the tier-one players, you realise there are men like Paris Saint-Germain’s Thomas Meunier, Youri Tielemans of Monaco and Atletico Madrid’s Yannick Carrasco who barely get a mention.

"Meunier is a good shout for a secret weapon,” Bleacher Report’s Belgian expert Gianni Verschueren told me. "And Martinez is trying to integrate Tielemans into the team slowly—I think he wants him to play a significant role by next summer. Carrasco will also play a massive role on the opposite flank of Meunier. He's not used to defending at club level but was immense against Bosnia."

Still, you suspect those will not be tournament-defining players for Belgium. It is no surprise that with any Belgian football expert or supporter, the discussion always heads towards Chelsea's Hazard and Manchester City's De Bruyne.


Hazard had to sit out the start of this season with injury, but by the time the World Cup comes around, he could be in his best form. The recent Champions League outing against Atletico Madrid showed glimpses of his magic already returning.

"If you are trying to figure out who in the team is most important, it is a toss-up between Hazard and De Bruyne," Verschueren told me. "De Bruyne has grown into the role of leader after a shaky start with the national team, and I'd go with him as the most important toward overall success. Belgium has historically been a blue-collar team, and that mentality remains with a lot of players—Hazard has always been the main creative outlet who can open up matches with a moment of brilliance.

"De Bruyne sits deeper under Martinez —almost as a traditional central midfield player—and Hazard is the main creative force further up the pitch. Taken the role quite well, and been consistently good since he got the captain's armband. Struggled with the national team for years, but that's a thing of the past."

It is interesting that although Lukaku is the main goal threat for Belgium, he’s not seen as the most important figure for success.

In De Bruyne, Belgium have one of the most complete midfield players in the world. Under Pep Guardiola, his all-round game has improved, particularly this term, when Guardiola has often used him in a deeper role.

European football expert Andy Brassell seems convinced De Bruyne will be the man to shape their campaign in Russia.

"The main strength of the Belgian group, which is the versatility and pace at their disposal, can be personified in one man: Kevin De Bruyne," he said. "He has both in abundance, and that he has the keys to the attacking segment of the team is vital. His performance in Bosnia underlined that he can adapt to the most unpromising of conditions.”

De Bruyne, already a household name across the globe, is the man to turn Belgium from pretenders to World Cup contenders.


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