The Rio Report

Why Hazard’s uber-cool Belgium could be fatally undermined at the World Cup

The Rio Report

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He's the golden boy of Belgian football, he's perhaps the best player in England at the moment and at the tender age of 23, Eden Hazard will have the pressure of an expectant nation on his shoulders this summer.

The Chelsea star claims he is on course to emulate the great Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo but knows he must prove his class by winning trophies. If he can somehow lead his side to World Cup glory in Brazil, he will have achieved what neither Ballon d'or winner have been able to: getting their hands on the most prized asset in world football.

Never mind West Germany's triumph over the great Hungary side of 1954, if Belgium were to lift the World Cup in July then we would have witnessed the greatest shock in football history, despite the country being labelled serious contenders.

They are certainly the 'cool' team to get behind prior to Brazil 2014. Belgium's title as underdogs has developed and suddenly Marc Wilmots' side - who are playing their first World Cup since 2002 - have an anxious following who are hopeful of a successful tournament. In fact, most bookmakers have Belgium as the fifth favourites to lift the trophy, and expectations grew greater when they were handed a relatively kind draw with Algeria, Russia and South Korea alongside them in Group H.

Belgium boast an array of talent throughout their side, including Premier League stars such as Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, Tottenham Hotspur defender Jan Vertonghen and Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. The trio were at the heart of a defensive set-up which only conceded four goals in the qualifying stages.

Everton's on-loan striker Romelu Lukaku and the lively Kevin Mirallas are also key players. Tottenham Hotspur's Mousa Dembele is a powerhouse in midfield and will cause any team problems if he plays to the best of his ability. Before Spurs' 4-0 defeat to Chelsea on Sunday, Dembele had created 31 chances at and average of 1.63 per game.

Playing in Russia is Zenit St Petersburg anchorman Axel Witsel, who is reportedly a target for Chelsea and Manchester United. The versatile 24-year-old loves to get about across midfield and is very protective of his back four. But possessing outstanding defensive ability isn't everything about Witsel's game: he is an astute passer of the ball and loves to lay on chances for his team-mates.

That's not to mention the Serie A duo of coveted Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan, who has attracted attention from a host of clubs including Juventus and AC Milan, and Napoli winger Dries Mertens who scored 45 goals in 86 appearances for former club PSV. On closer inspection, however, Wilmot's side has some glaring weaknesses.

Regular starters Thomas Vermaelen has struggled for game time at Arsenal this season, Kevin De Bruyne had to force through a January move to Bundesliga side Wolfsburg after sitting on Chelsea's bench from August, Nacer Chadli has failed to hold down a starting position after joining Tottenham from FC Twente and Marouane Fellaini's £27 million move to Manchester United has turned out to be a disaster.

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FC Porto's Steven Defour has been left pondering what could have been from the substitutes' bench as a proposed move to the Premier League fell through after fellow defender and captain Lucho moved to Qatar in January.

Despite having Lukaku and Christian Benteke as frontmen, none of Belgium's players managed to exceed four goals in the qualifying stages, the latter producing a 'miss of the season' contender in the recent friendly with Ivory Coast when he blazed over from just seven yards.

They may have easily reached the finals, topping their group, but Belgium only scored 18 goals in 10 games en route to Brazil. The fact defender Daniel van Buyten, who isn't expected to be a regular this summer, is their top goalscorer with 10 goals speaks volumes.

England have been using the excuse of fatigue as a prime cause of failure to succeed in any international competition for years and Belgium's stars may too feel the pace of a long Premier League season come June. Jose Mourinho complained his star man Hazard needed a rest before Belgium's 2-2 draw with Ivory Coast and, despite not starting the match, suffered a slight ankle injury during the second half.

Belgium's inexperience may hinder their chances of seriously competing in this year's tournament and that is why they likely won't go any further than the last 16. It is certainly strange for a team who haven't played in a World Cup for 12 years to be tipped as potential winners.

If Wilmots' youngsters are to make history by being named the first European side to claim the World Cup in South America, they will need to play beyond their tender years and they will need a player like Hazard at the heart of the action.

Darren Beattie - @DarrenBeatz

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