Courtesy the Royal Belgian Football Association
At the same time I was contemplating the lack of a Brazilian super-duper-star at the peak of his powers, another thought related to a national team occurred to me. It felt like I'd been hearing about a lot of Belgians either being very good players or being seriously high-end prospects. For a country of just over 10 million people that is currently ranked 57th in the FIFA rankings you are left to wonder if they'll be the surprise package of Euro 2012 or WC2014. What has me jumping on the bandwagon before Euro qualification has kicked into gear? Here's a quick look.
You often hear that you can't have a great team unless you are solid through the middle. So how do the Belgians stack up down the middle? Let's take a look:
Mignolet - He isn't the greatest keeper in the Premier League but he has certainly shown himself to be more than adequate when he has played. I'd say he's no worse than a 7 out of 10 if you were ranking goalkeepers that way. Certainly a solid, if not spectacular start when building from the back.
Kompany, Vermaelen, Alderweireld, and Vertonghen - Hard to argue with two of the better central defenders in the Premier League. Yes, I know all about Verm's injury issues this season but assuming he isn't the "next King/Woody" and he returns to form late this season or early in the 2011-12 season then you'd have to say that not many countries in the world boast a stronger starting pair of central defenders. Daniel van Buyten is getting a little long in the tooth and may no longer be up to the challenge but Belgium still boasts some depth in Ajax's first choice central pairing of young Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. That's as close to a 10 out of 10 as any country the size of Belgium is ever going to run out in International competition at a specific position grouping.
Fellaini, Defour - Not as much depth or attacking experience here as you'd like to see but in Fellaini they have a solid holding midfielder that will contribute the occasional headed goal along with the fantastic haircut. The combination of Fellaini and Kompany should make Belgium extremely strong in the air and no picnic physically to play against. Yes, Fellaini is a bit of a loose cannon and is prone to picking up dumb yellow and red cards which could hurt given the relative lack of depth at holding midfielder. That said, Kompany is capable of moving up to that spot with one of the Ajax CBs partnering their former teammate Vermaelen. As for Defour, he is young (19) but is highly regarded as a great attacking talent for the future. His coming out party might be 2014 rather than 2012 but stranger things have happened.
Dembele, Hazard, Lukaku - Dembele burst onto the Premier League scene in August and September with a flurry of goals and exceptional performances. He was subsequently injured and hasn't been the same player since he's been back. Was it temporary form early? Or is his current form the result of slow recovery from injury? Hard to say but regardless, even if he's only 80% of the player who started the season for Fulham, that's not a bad place to start. Especially when you have two of the more sought-after young talents in the game coming next. All you need to know about Eden Hazard is that he draws comparisons to players like Messi and Ronaldo. He's young enough that we don't know if he'll reach those heights but with Arsenal, Chelsea and a pack of others chasing the French League Young Player of the Year with large wads of cash, you have to expect he'll at least be very good.
If Hazard were the best attacking prospect on this team, that would be pretty good but Romelu Lukaku is even more sought-after. Described as the "next Drogba" he seems the perfect foil for the smaller, trickier Hazard. Like Defour, the young strikers are more likely to be ready to announce themselves at the next World Cup in 2014 as opposed to at Euro2012 but stranger things have happened. As it stands, this group is probably a 6 out of 10 RIGHT NOW but if the talent evaluators are correct, it has the potential to be 8 out of 10 by Euro2012 and 9 or 10 out of 10 by WC14.
As far as the spine of the team goes, Belgium is full of strength at the back and dazzling potential going forward. With Vermaelen the oldest player mentioned above at 25 years old, there is plenty of opportunity for this group to grow and improve for at least the next three tournaments (Euro2012, WC2014, and Euro2016) with an outside chance of still being in their prime in 2018 for the controversial World Cup in Russia.
I don't know whether the wide players can match the strength of the spine of the team but if they are even adequate then this team has the potential to dazzle. I think that 57th place FIFA ranking is going to go up significantly. Anywhere I can take the "under" on Belgium's FIFA ranking in 2015? I'm thinking it will look more like 15 or 16 than 50 or 60.
OK, resume your preparations for the FA Cup matches over the weekend.
Cheers - Neal