- Belgium set to arrive in Russia with a side packed with stars
- After reaching the Brazil 2014 quarter-finals, can they go further?
- With key players in their prime and senior stalwarts in their 30's, Russia 2018 looks their best shot at glory
Having been perennial dark horses of late, Belgium's glistening golden generation has seemed to only acquire more carats to treasure.
But with key figures already over 30 – arguably set for their final FIFA World Cup™ at their peak – is this their best chance ever to add another name to the trophy’s roll of honour?
Having reached the Brazil 2014 quarter-finals and the last eight again at UEFA EURO 2016, Belgium's record in successfully negotiating the group stage is well established. But can coach Roberto Martinez guide his enviable squad of superstars one step further and reach football's summit?
FIFA.com takes a closer look at their reasons for optimism at Russia 2018.
Years of familiarity
When it comes down to it, this team has come a long way together. The likes of Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini, Vincent Kompany, Mousa Dembele, Kevin Mirallas and Steven Defour were all involved as Belgium finished fifth, behind Finland, in EURO 2008 qualifying. Skip forward just a few years further and the connections to today’s team become starker still.
From the squad of their final Russia 2018 qualifier, Toby Alderweireld, Axel Witsel, Eden Hazard, Laurent Ciman, Thomas Vermaelen and Romelu Lukaku all featured in September 2010 during their ill-fated quest to reach EURO 2012. An impressive 15 players from that campaign were involved in reaching this World Cup.
With few sides that can come close to that level of understanding in their ranks, it could prove priceless.
Stars in their prime
While their talent pool truly does run rich, success will likely only arrive should their leading lights be shining brightly. Principle among those for Belgium are captain Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, a truly enviable creative duo.
Both have been excellent this season – Hazard tops Chelsea’s scoring and assists charts, while De Bruyne is Europe’s best in the latter, with both are arguably coming into their peak, aged 27 and 26 respectively. When Qatar 2022 comes around they will likely still be at the top of their games but, in the eyes of Belgium fans, this World Cup could not come at a better time.
With both players having little to play for during the final weeks of the season – less Hazard’s hopes of lifting the English FA Cup – there could even be a hint of freshness re-entering their legs when they kick off against Panama in Sochi on 18 June.
Strength in depth
Roberto Martinez really does seem to be blessed with an embarrassment of riches. Having introduced some fluidity into the defence since taking the reins, often switching to three at the back, his is a line-up that is tough to pick holes in. And his hypothetical second-string side is enviable, too.
The luxury of being able to ponder the inclusion of Radja Nainggolan, a lynchpin with UEFA Champions League semi-finalists Roma but whose reliability off the field has been called into question, is a reflection of how deep their strength lies.
Meanwhile, Michy Batshuayi’s resurgence, with the striker having scored 13 since the turn of year, bolsters their forward options to looking brimming with variety, too - though an anxious wait remains on his fitness after injury against Schalke. Lukaku, Batshuayi, Dries Mertens and Hazard can all lead the line in impressively different fashions.
Potential second XI: Simon Mignolet; Thomas Vermaelen, Christian Kabasele, Dedryck Boyata; Nacer Chadli, Marouane Fellaini, Mousa Dembele, Youri Tielemans, Thorgan Hazard; Michy Batshuayi, Divock Origi
Belgium’s traditional lack of experience in the latter stages of tournaments will be seen as reason to doubt their chances. They have reached just one final – at EURO 1980 – and a fourth-placed finish their best at World Cup, but this year sees question marks hang over all the traditional favourites.
Germany may be reigning champions and Confederation Cup holders, but a poor EURO and a transformed team since 2014 means their path to success isn’t as clear. Brazil are reinvigorated, but have the emotional scars left from 2014 and a poor Copa America fully healed?
France look mighty strong on paper, but qualifying hiccups leave question marks over their consistency. Argentina arguably have the most attacking riches to choose from on the planet, but will defensive fragility cost them?
With the likes of Spain and Portugal possessing blemishes of their own, too, could this finally be Belgium’s moment to eclipse the class of 1986?