- *Belgium the first European side to qualify from the Russia 2018 preliminaries *
- Les Diables Rouges have clocked up an impressive series of stats
- Records have been broken and others could follow soon
Boasting a watertight defence, a glittering array of attacking stars and an unbreakable team spirit, the present Belgium side is already being spoken of as the finest in the country’s history. Always strong favourites to emerge from Group H of the European qualification tournament for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, *Les Diables Rouges *were aware that every performance would be closely scrutinised. They have responded in the best possible manner, putting together a record-breaking campaign. Following a 2-1 victory away to Greece on Sunday, Belgium joined hosts Russia as the first country from the Old Continent to book their place at next year’s tournament.
This formidable Belgian side is almost unrecognisable from the country so long accustomed to sweating on FIFA World Cup qualification. Having set the tone four years ago by comfortably booking their place at Brazil 2014, *Les Diables Rouges *have raised the bar even further in sealing their thirteenth appearance at the world’s premier tournament. FIFA.com looks at the numbers behind Belgium’s progress, as well as some records that look set to fall as the team continue their inexorable march towards Russia 2018.
The case for the defence
All great teams are built on the foundations of a solid rearguard. The Belgians boast one of the meanest defensive records in Europe, having conceded only three goals in eight qualifiers. Only Estonia and Greece, twice, have found a way past Thibault Courtois in the Belgian goal.
On the attack
With 35 goals scored in eight games, Roberto Martinez’s charges have so far proved to be Europe’s most prolific marksmen. Their goal difference stands at a formidable +32 with two games still to play, raising the spectre that Les Diables Rouges may surpass Romania’s all-time goal difference record of +33, set during qualification for France 1998.
*Unstoppable Lukaku *Paul van Himst has long been considered the best Belgian footballer of all time. However, although it is hard to compare players from different eras, the statistics speak for themselves: Van Himst’s status as his country’s joint-highest goal scorer in history, which he shares with Bernard Voorhoof, is coming under serious threat. Romelu Lukaku, currently on 27 goals, is fast approaching the 30 strikes registered by the former Belgium head coach. The 24-year-old has scored ten times in eight matches on the road to Russia 2018, including the winning goal against Greece on Sunday that sealed his country’s place at next year’s tournament.
The invincibles *Les Diables Rouges *have not been beaten in a World Cup qualifier since a 2-0 reverse at the hands of Estonia in October 2009. The team has now gone 18 matches without defeat, a run that they will be hoping to extend to Russia and beyond.
* Old heads on young shoulders*
“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.” For Belgium, the proof is there for all to see in the shape of star performers Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany. The latter – now his country’s captain – made his international debut against France in 2004 before his 18th birthday, a feat matched by Chelsea midfielder Hazard against Luxembourg four years later. However, the achievements of both players were eclipsed by the Manchester United striker, whose first taste of international football came against Croatia in 2010 at the age of just 16 years and 294 days.
*To cap it all… *By now, Belgium legend Jan Ceulemans is well aware that time is nearly up for his all-time record of 96 international appearances. Ten members of the current national squad have already racked up over 60 caps. Jan Vertonghen is by no means the youngest of them, but it is the Tottenham defender who looks set to take Ceulemans’ record. He celebrated his 95th appearance for his country with a goal against Greece, and in doing so moved one cap clear of Timmy Simons and into second place on the all-time list.