With Lukaku, De Bruyne, and Courtois, can Belgium finally win?
For European teams, the lack of opportunities to win a trophy can cloud the results they achieve. There is only one trophy offered every two years (when there is no pandemic), and maybe Spain at the start of the last decade changed our perception of what is a success. and what is not.
Belgium is seen as a bummer, given this generation of players it produced that ranked it as the best team in the world by FIFA for a while (although those rankings and three bucks will get you up in the Subway). Belgium reached the semi-finals of the last World Cup, the quarterfinals of the last European Championships and the quarterfinals of the World Cup before that. The list of countries that would happily take this record is long. It’s better than what England has achieved. Miles better than Holland. Better than Italy. It’s actually better than Spain.
But no final, not to say no trophy, gives a feeling of failure. Especially by browsing one of the lists that Belgium brought to these tournaments. And it’s no different this time around. Belgium have the best Serie A striker at Romelu Lukaku. They have the Premier League’s best midfielder in Kevin De Bruyne, who looks to be doing well after breaking his face in the Champions League final. They have one of the best goalkeepers in the world with Thibaut Courtois. There are proven Premier League artists littered throughout the squad like Youri Tielemans or Dennis Praet or Leandro Trossard. And then there is the joker of Eden Hazard, who only a few years ago was on the verge of winning the Ballon d’Or, but then traveled to Madrid and saw his body turn to mush. Belgium only needs a few good weeks of it instead of several months to really break out this summer.
Which makes their tournament finishes frustrating, even if on paper it’s a good run. The last Euros saw them sort of lose to Wales in the quarterfinals, as they seemed completely troubled by a team playing, you know, defense. The difference in organization was glaring, which cost then coach Marc Wilmots his post in favor of Roberto Martínez. The 2014 World Cup saw them bow to a rather mediocre Argentina team. The last time we saw them in a tournament, they lost a one-game draw against the future champions of France, and could easily have taken it. They don’t have a lot of steps to go through.
What Martínez will have to navigate, or prove to his skeptics that he knows how, is that Belgium’s defense is the Wilfred Brimley All-Stars. Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen are together around 398 years old, and Martinez ‘S habits of setting up attacking midfielders as wingers in their usual 3-4-3 formation can lead them to be on the exposed side.
Still, in the future, this team should be tasty. The other Hazard, Thorgan, can be installed as one of these wingbacks. Or Yannick Carrasco, or Thomas Meunier, who can all wreak havoc on the wings. If Elder Hazard can put the pitchfork down long enough to combine with Lukaku and reliable Dries Mertens, there should be goals galore.
Belgium’s draw should also help. This group isn’t quite a simple walk, but it’s close enough that it’s conceivable. If they win the group, their round of 16 will pit one of the third teams, and a quarter could see Italy, or the Dutch, or some upstarts, of which Belgium would be favored.
A quirk of this edition of the Euro is that although Belgium are the seeded team in this group, they will essentially play two away matches in the group stage, in Denmark and Russia. It shouldn’t be too much of a hindrance, but makes things harder than they should be.
From there, it really comes down to whether Lukaku can maintain his dominance throughout the season at the top level, or if De Bruyne can pick one more assist than he has in these tournaments, or if they can avoid a team that contains a ton of speed. wide to stretch that aged back line. It’s been a good decade, but this Belgian team has been pointing better than good. This is probably their last shot.
Denmark bring a pretty strong team … until you get to the front. There is a more than solid defense here, supported by Milanese Simon Kjær and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. The midfielder is the real force with Christian Eriksen backed by Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Thomas Delaney from Dortmund. But there is no punch up front. It is either the blank stare of Youssuf Poulson, who has only managed five goals with the very offensive Leipzig this season, or young people like Andreas Skov Olsen or Jonas Wind who have not yet tasted this level. You can almost always count on the Danes to come out of the squad and then bow out in a round of 16 game that no one will remember five minutes into the end. They’ll be stubborn outs for anyone they come up against, but unless Eriksen lines up a plethora of free kicks, their lack of finishing will see a definitive cap on what they can accomplish.
Russia are three days older than the water, although they can play two games at home, which could put them in a third place good enough to advance to the second round. This is the first major tournament in Finland, and proud we are all.