Much has been made of Belgium’s fantastic repertoire of young players, with some tipping them as a good outside bet for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Enzo Scifo – one of the nation’s all-time greats – says in the video at the bottom of this post that the current crop is their greatest ever, and he took them to the semi-finals of the 1986 World Cup.
It would be hard to disagree – every week there seems to be a young Belgium star wreaking havoc in one of Europe’s major leagues.
Eden Hazard wrote the headlines with his star turn against West Ham on Sunday, while Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke are two of the most feared young strikers in the Premier League.
Marouane Fellaini is one of the most highly-rated midfielders outside of Europe’s traditional big clubs, while Everton team-mate Kevin Mirallas is a livewire with the ball at his feet and Tottenham's Mousa Dembele one of the better ball-carriers in the Premier League.
Steven Defour and Axel Witsel, former club team-mates of Fellaini, have moved to bigger and better things since their Standard Liege days, while in defence Vincent Kompany is arguably the most accomplished centre-half in the world right now, ably helped by the likes of Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen and Bayern Munich veteran Daniel van Buyten.
In goal there are multiple options – as England scramble the Championship and SPL for back-ups to Joe Hart, Thibaut Courtois has genuine competition in Simon Mignolet.
But just how good are they? While Belgium’s historical French-Flemish divide seems to have disappeared with a more enlightened youth, this so-called golden generation’s strength is also their weakness.
Most of the squad is under the age of 25, so while possessing the enthusiasm and potential of youth, only Kompany and Vermaelen have extensive international experience from their first-choice starting XI, with Van Buyten and Timmy Simons unlikely to start.
Belgium will almost certainly qualify from their group, but once they are in Brazil, how will they handle the weight of expectation? A relatively low seeding means they are likely to be in a so-called Group of Death, but if they get out of it will they be able to oust the world’s big guns in knock-out football?
Only time will tell. Meanwhile, we have made a comparison between Belgium’s probable starting XI and that of a team always tipped to shine at tournaments but one which usually flops – our much-maligned England.
BELGIUM V ENGLAND – HEAD TO HEAD
Goalkeeper – Thibaut Courtois v Joe Hart
Courtois, only 20, is Petr Cech’s long-term successor at Chelsea and has impressed in two seasons on loan at Atletico Madrid. With limitless potential, he is an agile shot-stopper but can improve his command of the area. Hart, however, is a title-winner and has plenty of experience and – at just 25 – is regarded as one of the best keepers in the world.
Eurosport view – Hart of gold: BELGIUM 0-1 ENGLAND
Right-back – Toby Alderweireld v Glen Johnson
Ajax defender Alderweireld, 24, is equally adept as a centre-half, but for his country usually trots out as a full-back. Solid defensively but less of a threat going forward than Liverpool’s Johnson, who – while prone to going walkabout – is one of the more exciting attacking full-backs in the game.
Eurosport view – Let’s call it a draw: BELGIUM 0-1 ENGLAND
Left-back – Jan Vertonghen v Ashley Cole
Vertonghen, like Alderweireld, is more of a centre back but will play on the left for his country. Solid positionally, excellent in the tackle and imperious in the air, he would ordinarily take the points but is up against one of the best left-backs in the world. Cole may have gone off the boil recently but he always turns up for England.
Eurosport view – Old King Cole: BELGIUM 0-2 ENGLAND
Centre back – Vincent Kompany v Gary Cahill
Cahill is a fine ball-playing defender, but Kompany is a fantastic leader and arguably the best in his position in Europe. Captain of club and country, the former Hamburg man speaks several languages, is a supreme organiser and rarely makes a mistake. Cahill is good, but not that good.
Eurosport view – In good Kompany: BELGIUM 1-2 ENGLAND
Centre back – Thomas Vermaelen v Phil Jones
As far as stoppers go, Vermaelen looked the real deal when he came to Arsenal. He has been shaky recently though, a long-term downturn that could just be a result of Arsenal’s travails, but equally can be blamed on a series of injuries. Jones, while also suffering fitness problems, is younger, quicker, stronger and simply better. The Manchester United youngster could well be one of the all-time greats.
Eurosport view – Keeping up with the Joneses: BELGIUM 1-3 ENGLAND
Right midfield – Kevin Mirallas v James Milner
Two very different players who operate in similar parts of the pitch, Mirallas is a livewire winger/forward while Milner a hard-working wide midfielder. An argument could be made that Mirallas would be best compared to Theo Walcott or Aaron Lennon, but as it stands Roy Hodgson prefers Milner, who gets through a shift but is less likely to stretch a defence than Mirallas.
Eurosport view – Mirallas magic: BELGIUM 2-3 ENGLAND
Left midfield – Mousa Dembele v Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Belgium have a more settled midfield than England, but Dembele is not guaranteed a place with the likes of Dries Martens knocking about. The Ox, similarly, is no shoo-in, and while he is immensely gifted, he is inconsistent and young. Dembele is a more proven pro, and plays more games.
Eurosport view – Moose slays Ox: BELGIUM 3-3 ENGLAND
Central midfield – Marouane Fellaini v Steven Gerrard
A proper head-to-head as they turn out for local rivals Everton and Liverpool, and are likely to quite literally come face-to-face as Gerrard increasingly operates in a deeper role for England. There is no doubt that Gerrard has been a world-class player, and that he is in good form this season. But Fellaini is approaching his peak while, despite some standout performances in recent times, Gerrard is getting towards the end of his career and is physically less capable of dominating matches as he did five years ago.
Eurosport view – Everton claim derby spoils: BELGIUM 4-3 ENGLAND
Central midfield – Axel Witsel v Michael Carrick
Witsel is a divisive character but one thing you cannot say about him is that he lacks dynamism and quality. The Zenit St Petersburg playmaker is quick, strong, aggressive and an excellent distributor of the ball. While Carrick is a very good deep-lying playmaker, he lacks mobility and has a tendency to drift out of matches.
Eurosport view – Witsel wins: BELGIUM 5-3 ENGLAND
Second striker – Eden Hazard v Wayne Rooney
A lot of hype is surrounding Hazard, who has bounced back from his ballboy kicking shame with some magical performances for Chelsea. Meanwhile, Rooney appears surrounded by a terminal cloud of negative publicity, an emotional weight that comes with the job of England’s highest-profile player. But you can never write off Roo, who is one of the few English players capable of creating something out of nothing.
Eurosport view – Dead heat: BELGIUM 5-3 ENGLAND
Centre forward – Christian Benteke/Romelu Lukaku v Jermain Defoe/Danny Welbeck
Belgium have two incredible young talents up front so, even though Defoe has the benefit of experience, Belgium easily win this heat. Both Belgium youngsters are big, fast, powerful target men, with Benteke a bigger physical presence and Lukaku more technically astute. Whether it’s arch poacher Defoe or lively wide forward Welbeck, Belgium have the edge in terms of power and ability.
Eurosport view – Made in Congo: BELGIUM 6-3 ENGLAND