Wilson: Time for Belgians to deliver

Ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, ESPNSTAR.com columnist Jonathan Wilson believes there is no denying the talent Belgium currently have at their disposal.

Spot the afro twins.

Shortly after Euro 2000, Slovenian football became immensely fashionable in England. People had seen Slovenia at the Euros and had been alerted suddenly to a new seam of reasonably-priced talent to mine. Suddenly, every self-respecting club was looking for a Slovenian. As Simon Kuper remarked, Slovenians in the year or so that followed became like pashmina scarves, a must-have accessory.

A decade on and the nation in vogue is Belgium. There's been talk for a while about the coming of Belgium as a footballing power again but it's now ten years since they last appeared at a major tournament.

Part of the problem is coefficients. Once a team starts to sink it becomes very hard to fight back; fall into pot three or four of the seedings and you face a group like that Belgium faced in the Euros when they ended up third behind Turkey and Germany. And so, until a draw is kind, the cycle keeps on turning.

That the talent is there is indisputable. There are 14 Belgians contracted to Premier League clubs, although three of them - Kevin De Bruyne, Thorgen Hazard and Thibaut Courtois - have been loaned out by Chelsea - to Werder Bremen, Zulte Waregem and Atletico Madrid respectively. Chelsea have also loaned out Romelu Lukaku to West Bromwich Albion. The Belgian who is at Chelsea, Eden Hazard, has been outstanding so far. There was a fear that his comparative physical slightness would mean it would take him time to get settled in the Premier League but of the eight goals Chelsea have scored in the league so far, he has scored one, played the final pass for four and been tripped for penalties for two more.

Marouane Fellaini has also stood out this season, producing an outstanding performance for Everton as they beat Manchester United, bullying defenders with his aerial presence and scoring the only goal.

Moussa Dembele, another driving midfielder but with a slightly more technical approach, impressed at Fulham last season, and confirmed his abilities in the 3-2 defeat to United before moving for Tottenham. He started on the bench against Norwich City, but came on at half-time to give Spurs midfield thrust, scoring their goal in a 1-1 draw with a neat turn and finish from the edge of the box.

The Belgian who has had the greatest influence over the Premier League, though, is Vincent Kompany. Not only is he a fine defender, an astute reader of the game who is dominant in the air, not only did he score what turned out to be the vital goal in the title race as he headed in a corner in the derby against United, but he has proved a fine leader. He is eloquent, self-aware and thoughtful both in interviews and on social media and has brought a likeable heart to a club that could easily be loathed as mercenaries.

Then there is Arsenal's Thomas Vermaelen, an elegant centre-back who is comfortable bringing the ball out from the back. For his national team, he often has to play at left-back because of the presence of Jan Vertonghen, a key figure in Ajax's two successive Dutch title wins before his move to Tottenham.

Everton have just signed the forward Kevin Mirallas, top-scorer for Olympiacos as they won the Greek league last season, and are hopeful of getting permission from the FA to add another Belgian to the league by signing the central midfielder Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe on loan from Club Brugge. The goalkeeper Simon Mignolet only came into the Sunderland team because of injuries to Craig Gordon. He had just turned 22 when he made his debut two years ago but since then he has proved himself to such an extent that Gordon was released at the end of last season when his contract expired. He can occasionally look uncertain on crosses but he has fine reflexes and seems increasingly to be dominating his box.

So why then the persistent failure at international level? The question seems even to be gnawing at Belgium's players. "With the squad we have these days, we should be able to do something," Eden Hazard admitted this week as Belgium prepare to face Wales in their first qualifier for the 2014 World Cup. "In a way it's this time or never for Belgium. We have a great generation of players, but we have to do it on the pitch. We have talked enough. It's time for action.

"The talent is here, we know that. But we have to show that with results. It's everything or nothing and we absolutely have to qualify for the World Cup. We have to gain at least four points from our opening two matches against Wales and Croatia."

What's striking is how self-critical Hazard is, how keen he seems to put it right. "Perhaps I have not been as effective for Belgium as for Chelsea or my former club Lille," he said. "Why that is I'm not sure.

"Maybe expectations are too high. Maybe people expect me to score three goals per game. But I think I have played some good matches for Belgium. At club level I may be more decisive, but that's normal. It's not possible to score three goals in every match, but people do expect that."

Much has been made of the difficulties of getting those of Walloon and those of Flemish descent to coexist happily in the same dressing-room, and certainly it's true that when Guy Thys took Belgium to the World Cup semi-final in 1986 his ability to get both sides pulling together was key. It's hard to believe that's still an issue though in a dressing room in which so few are Flemish or Walloon. The issue is probably more one of age - this is still a young squad - and that, for all their gifted midfielders, they lack a centre-forward. The 19-year-old Lukaku has looked vaguely impressive in two substitute cameos for West Brom this season and if he can develop into the mobile and muscular centre-forward it looks like he could, then there may be some punch to go with the fine passing.

And then there is the issue of coefficients and the draw. Hazard surely overstates the case when he says it's now or never for Belgium, but a group comprising Croatia, Serbia, Scotland, Wales, FYR Macedonia offers realistic hope of qualifying for a first World Cup in 12 years.

THE PREMIER LEAGUE BELGIANS (loaned-out players in brackets)

Arsenal
Thomas Vermaelen

Aston Villa
Christian Benteke

Chelsea
Eden Hazard
(Kevin De Bruyne)
(Romelu Lukaku)
(Thorgan Hazard)
(Thibault Cortois)

Everton
Marouane Fellaini
Kevin Mirallas

Manchester City
Vincent Kompany

Southampton
Steve De Ridder

Sunderland
Simon Mignolet

Tottenham
Jan Vertonghen
Moussa Dembele

West Brom
Romelu Lukaku [on loan from Chelsea]
(Yassine El Ghanassy)



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