IF you were to ask the average fan which nation at this year’s European Championships had the most expensive squad, they probably wouldn’t say Belgium, ALISON MCGOVERN writes.
Surely the glittering Spanish, the flamboyant French or the world champions Germany top the list? Even England, with the ridiculous premium put on home-grown talent (£49million Raheem Sterling anyone?), would probably rank higher.
But, it says something about the rise of the little nation, from the low countries, in recent years. The fact they top the squad price list is surprising, without being shocking.
This example highlights the kind of tricky no-man’s land that Belgium currently inhabit. Too good to be plucky outsiders, but not yet ranked at the top table of international football success. A squad that contains superstars like Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne, but also players plucked from the obscurity of the Juliper League (no I don’t believe you are hipster enough to know who Christian Kabasele is).
Belgium defy categorisation. No longer dark horses, they have to cope with the pressure and expectation that dogs the other giants of the continent.
And pressure there is. While we in England seem to speak of Brussels only in the context of our upcoming referendum, in the Belgian capital the talk is of football and little else. Belgian fans, already delighted that their Dutch rivals failed to even make the tournament, are confident that this is the best squad they have sent to a tournament.
They are right to be excited. Belgian’s golden generation finally seems to have come into its own, and their key players are coming off strong seasons in their domestic leagues, with the exception of stand-in captain Hazard.
I say leagues but, when looking at the squad, what immediately becomes obvious is just how Premier League-heavy it is. Seven of the likely starters grace our pitches and one of the few who doesn’t, tough-tackling midfield enforcer Radja Nainggolan, is heavily linked with a move join the Antonio Conte revolution at Stamford Bridge, where he will likely link up with Hazard and Courtois.
Losing talismanic captain Vincent Kompany is a huge blow, but Spurs duo Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen were probably the best centre-back partnership in the league this season, and Belgium should cope with the loss quite comfortably.
There is also some great young talent coming through, like Manchester City hotshot Jason Denayer who has spent the last two seasons on loan at Celtic, and more recently Galatasaray. Belgium have always struggled to produce natural full-backs, even Denayer is naturally a centre-back, but the youngster, dubbed the ‘new Kompany’, could get a game and will be hoping he can impress Pep Guardiola, to force his way into the Spaniard’s plans at the Etihad next season.
Belgium’s 4-2-3-1 formation may have workmanlike full-backs, and a functional defensive midfield duo in Nainggolan and Axel Witsel, but this reduces the defensive burden on the array of attacking talent at their disposal. And what talent it is. The attacking midfielders, Hazard and De Bruyne, ooze class and, with their goals and assists, both would be key men for any team in the competition. They are supplemented by the likes of Dries Mertens and Atletico Madrid prodigy Yannick Carrasco — who has pace to burn and should be on a high after scoring the equaliser in the Champions League final.
Up front, Everton’s Romelu Lukaku will probably continue to start, ahead of our very own Christian Benteke, but manager Marc Wilmots has a soft spot for Divock Origi, who was in such good form towards the end of the season, prior to the injury sustained in the Derby. We could again see him come off the bench. Belgium can also look to Marseille’s frontman Michy Batshuayi, who is very much in the shop window as one of the most coveted young strikers in Europe.
The squad is certainly there, but how will they do? It says a lot about how much the Belgians are fancied that they were tipped to win a ‘group of death’, that includes the Italians, along with Sweden and the Republic of Ireland. In the opener, Belgium failed to break down a well-organised Italy but, despite their early setback, they should still make it to the next round.
Beyond the group, anything could happen. This is a team that has the potential to beat any of the giants, but is equally capable of failing at the last 16 or the quarters, if they don’t click properly. This wouldn’t be a surprise, nor would it be shocking if they went all the way.
It has been a tough year for Belgium. This deeply-divided nation, with its melting pot of languages and cultures, was hit hard by the Brussels bombing back in March. Police raids are still a frequent occurrence in the neighbourhoods where many of this young group of players grew up. If ever a country could do with the unifying lift that international football success can bring, it is Belgium in 2016. This time, they have a team that could deliver it.