By Noah TanFollow @@Noah_Tan
Let me start by making a bold prediction: Belgium will win the 2016 European Championship.
I will not blame you if you scoff at the notion. After all, the Rode Duivels have never won any notable football trophy in their entire history. The best they ever achieved was a third and fourth place finish in the 1972 Euros and 1986 World Cup respectively.
And Belgium have not qualified for a major tournament since the 2002 World Cup (they were knocked out in the second round by eventual winners Brazil).
Surely, winning the Euros in 2016 will be a step too far for Belgium?
Talent, talent everywhere!
To write off Belgium's chances of securing international glory in the future based on their poor record would be imprudent.
Take a look at the current make-up of the Belgium team.
It is a squad chock full of genuine quality, from back to front, and signing Belgian talents has recently become fashionable amongst the top clubs in Europe.
In goal, both Thibaut Courtois and Simon Mignolet, superb shot-stoppers who are as reliable a custodian as you could ask for, will fight it out for the number one spot.
Their rearguard is helmed by none other than the imperious Vincent Kompany. Undoubtedly one of the best centre-backs in the world, what Kompany brings to the team is more than just his much lauded defensive qualities. The Manchester City player is a born leader, and his calmly authoritative style on the pitch will be integral to the team's fortunes.
But what is a leader without capable lieutenants? Thankfully for Belgium, Kompany is competently aided in defence by Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen and Tottenham Hotspur's Jan Vertonghen. Both defenders have proven themselves at the highest level, and their versatility can come in very handy should the team be beset by injuries.
How well a team does in a game often depends on their midfield, and Belgium certainly do not come up short in that area, both literally and figuratively.
Not many players in the world have the ability to match up with the physicality of the tall, imposing duo of Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini. To have both of them running the show in the middle of the pitch would be a dream for any team, and that is exactly what the Rode Duivels can count on.
To complement the hustle and bustle approach of the Wistel and Fellaini, the elusive Moussa Dembele will be tasked to provide the flair and creativity from midfield, something which he has done to great effect for Spurs this season.
Up front, all eyes would unquestionably be trained on the footballing wizard that is Eden Hazard. Mesmerizingly skilful, quick and deadly in front of goal, the Chelsea forward has all the qualities to succeed on the world stage. Questions remain over his indifferent form for country (he plays much better at club level), but he will be able to perform on the international stage with enough experience on his side.
While Dries Mertens may currently be unfamiliar to most, his exciting displays for PSV Eindhoven have caught the eye of several top European clubs, and it will only be a matter of time before he becomes a household name in the footballing world.
With the ever-improving Romelu Lukaku spearheading the attack, Belgium fans can rest assured that they have a clinical striker who has the rare ability of being equally comfortable in dominating the aerial duels as he is having the ball at his feet.
But the most impressive aspect of Belgium's squad is the amount of quality they have beyond their first team.
Ajax defender Toby Alderweireld and Zenit star Nicolas Lombaerts can seamlessly ease into the first team's defence when needed. Steven Defour, Kevin De Bruyne and Radja Nainggolan all offer something different to the team, allowing manager Marc Wilmots to fiddle with his formation when necessary. And we all know the potency Kevin Mirallas and Christian Benteke bring to the attack.
Is Marc Wilmots the right man to lead them?
But while Belgium may be a youthful and talented squad, I personally have reservations over the man tasked to bring out the most from them.
Wilmots may be Belgium's all time leading goal scorer in the World Cup, but his managerial credentials leave a lot to be desired.
He was only made Belgium's permanent coach in May last year following the exit of previous coach Georges Leekens. The most glamorous of his previous managerial stints saw him take charge of Schalke for a grand total of eight games before getting sacked.
How much tactical astuteness and man management skills can such an inexperienced manager possess? Will he be able to blend the differing skill sets of his players? For example, can he find a way to attune Hazard's penchant for working the ball on the ground to Fellaini's preference to receiving the ball in the air?
That the Belgian Football Association only offered Wilmots a two-year contract (till 2014) is perhaps an indictment of the amount of faith they have in the 44-year-old.
Whether Wilmots stays on beyond 2014 will be largely dependent on Belgium's performance at the World Cup in Brazil (assuming they qualify), but it would be no surprise if the Belgian FA eventually chooses to replace him with a more experienced and illustrious coach in the near future.
Belgium's chances at the 2014 World Cup
Securing qualification into the World Cup itself should not pose too much of a problem for Belgium.
Having been grouped together with Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Wales and Scotland [in Group A], the Rode Duivels have already eased themselves into pole position after just four games with three wins and a draw. With only Croatia posing a realistic threat to Belgium, chances of them topping the group are quite high.
However, despite the plethora of talent they have at their disposal, it will take some time before they gel and play together as a unit. That is why winning the World Cup in the 2014 World Cup will probably be out of Belgium's reach.
"This generation will shine at their brightest in the years to come, as they're still young and can improve a lot," Wilmots declared.
"The likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Christian Benteke are only 20 years old and are not yet established regulars for their clubs.
"However, we have to be realistic and give them time.
"I'm not speaking for myself when I say that, because my life won't change if I'm not here tomorrow. But I'm confident we've managed to build a group of 25 players who are moving forward."
Nonetheless, it may still be worth a punt to back Wilmots' men to upset several traditional big names along the way in the World Cup and perhaps, with a bit of luck, they may better the achievements of their 1986 squad.
"Now or never" for Belgium
Everything is in place for Belgium to emerge as the next footballing superpower.
Having been drawn into a relatively easy World Cup qualification group, Belgium, ranked 19th in the world by FIFA, have a golden opportunity to increase their national coefficients (and hence, their global ranking), which in turn translates into an improved chance of succeeding in future tournaments.
"With the squad we have these days, we should be able to do something," Hazard said.
"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."
The 2014 World Cup may be out of Belgium's reach, but with the experience their players will inevitably gain from participating in such a major tournament, coupled with the benefits of having played together as a team for a longer period of time, there is nothing stopping the Rode Duivels from winning the Euros in 2016.
Potential Belgium Starting XIs
GK: Thibaut Courtois (7 caps, Atletico Madrid [Loan])
LB: Jan Vertonghen (45 caps, 4 goals, Tottenham Hotspur)
RB: Toby Alderweireld (21 caps, 0 goals, Ajax)
CB: Thomas Vermaelen (40 caps, 1 goal, Arsenal)
CB: Vincent Kompany (52 caps, 4 goals, Manchester City)
CM: Axel Witsel (36 caps, 5 goals, Zenit St-Petersburg)
CM: Marouane Fellaini (38 caps, 5 goals, Everton)
CM: Mousa Dembélé (45 caps, 5 goals, Tottenham Hotspur)
LFW: Dries Mertens (17 caps, 2 goals, PSV Eindhoven)
RFW: Eden Hazard (34 caps, 3 goals, Chelsea)
FW: Romelu Lukaku (19 caps, 3 goals, West Brom [Loan])
Subs: Nacer Chadli (Twente), Laurent Ciman (Standard Liege), Christian Benteke (Aston Villa), Kevin De Bruyne (Werder Bremen), Steven Defour (Porto), Guillaume Gillet (Anderlecht), Jean-François Gillet (Torino Calcio), Nicolas Lombaerts (Zenit St-Petersburg), Simon Mignolet (Sunderland), Kevin Mirallas (Everton), Sébastien Pocognoli (Hannover 96), Timmy Simons (Nuremberg), Daniel Van Buyten (Bayern Munich), Jelle Vossen (Genk)