This could be it for Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ as Roberto Martinez heads into his final tournament in charge with the country. After a third-place finish in Russia in 2018, there appears to be little hope that Belgium can go one game further get their hands on the trophy despite the fact that they are currently ranked as the second-best men’s team in the world by FIFA, behind only Brazil.
Simply put, time has caught up with too many in the team and now only Thibaut Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne remain true world class players still in their prime. The likes of Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Axel Witsel, Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard and even Romelu Lukaku have all seen their best years come and go but continue to make up a significant chunk of the squad.
Here’s everything you need to know about Belgium ahead of the World Cup.
Belgium vs Canada (November 23, 19:00 GMT)
Belgium vs Morocco (November 27, 13:00 GMT)
Croatia vs Belgium (December 1, 15:00 GMT)
Belgium vs Canada H2H record: Played 1, Won 1
Belgium vs Morocco H2H record: Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1
Belgium vs Croatia H2H record: Played 8, Won 3, Drawn 2, Lost 3
Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid), Simon Mignolet (Club Brugge), Koen Casteels (Wolfsburg).
Defenders: Jan Vertonghen (Anderlecht), Toby Alderweireld (Royal Antwerp), Wout Faes (Leicester City), Arthur Theate (Stade Rennais), Zeno Debast (Anderlecht), Thomas Meunier (Borussia Dortmund), Timothy Castagne (Leicester City).
Midfielders: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Amadou Onana (Everton), Youri Tielemans (Leicester City), Axel Witsel (Atletico Madrid), Hans Vanaken (Club Brugge), Leander Dendoncker (Aston Villa), Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid), Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Dortmund).
Forwards: Eden Hazard (Real Madrid), Charles De Ketelaere (AC Milan), Leandro Trossard (Brighton & Hove Albion), Dries Mertens (Galatasaray), Jeremy Doku (Stade Rennais), Romelu Lukaku (Inter), Michy Batshuayi (Fenerbahce), Lois Openda (RC Lens).
The main concern for Belgium will be the fitness of Romelu Lukaku, who has made only four Serie A appearances so far this season. The striker recovered from a hamstring injury that kept him out for two months only to then suffer a quad injury against Sampdoria on October 29.
“For the moment he is not available and is in the hands of the doctors. If he is in a position to participate in one of the first three matches, Romelu is a player we need,” Roberto Martinez told L’Equipe in a recent update.
Right wing-back Thomas Meunier sustained a fractured cheekbone during Dortmund’s win against Hannover on October 19 but will be fit to play in the tournament. Alexis Saelemaekers, a potential rival for that position, will miss the tournament entirely due to a knee injury.
The Real Madrid goalkeeper is probably the best in the world at his position right now and may well have his work cut out for him in Qatar.
At 30 years of age and with 96 caps already to his name, Courtois is a key figure for Belgium and made the most saves at the last World Cup with 27 in seven games, winning the Golden Glove award for best goalkeeper in the process.
Kevin De Bruyne
It’s hard to overstate just how much Belgium rely on the individual brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne now that captain Eden Hazard is fading. The Manchester City star will operate further up the pitch for his country as a roaming playmaker, although Belgium may actually benefit more from him playing as one of the two central midfielders and inserting Leandro Trossard into the starting lineup.
De Bruyne has 25 goals in 93 appearances for his country, but it is his ability to provide chances that makes him so crucial for Roberto Martinez and Belgium.
Capped over 100 times by his country, Romelu Lukaku is by far and away Belgium’s most prolific international goalscorer. The 29-year-old has 68 to his name to date, with 57 of those coming in his last 60 appearances for the Red Devils.
He had a good 2018 World Cup for Belgium, scoring four times, and repeated the trick at the delayed Euro 2020 – evidence that his goals also come at important times. Moreover, Lukaku is the kind of striker who scores all kinds of goals, and he doesn’t often need a second invitiation if presented with a chance to score.
He’s carrying an injury into the tournament, yes, but he remains a serious threat if he’s ready to go.
Belgium are probably one of the easiest teams to predict across the 2022 World Cup due to the consistency of Roberto Martinez’s tactical approach. They will play in the same 3-4-3 shape they have done for the entirety of his six-year spell in charge and he is unlikely to make any dramatic changes to the starting lineup.
Due to Lukaku’s injury, Michy Batshuayi will start as the central forward ahead of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, while the midfield and defence looks pretty much set. Perhaps the only tough decision Martinez will need to make is which centre-back to play alongside stalwarts Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.
The 19-year-old Anderlecht defender Zeno Debast got the nod against the Netherlands and Wales in the Nations League but is inexperienced. Martinez has options, including moving central midfielder Leander Dendoncker back to offer more mobility. Rennes’ centre-back Arthur Theate could be the best choice but is more used to playing in a back four.
Belgium predicted XI: Courtois; Debast, Alderweireld, Vertonghen; Meunier, Witsel, Tielemans, Carrasco; De Bruyne, Batshuayi, Hazard.
The 4-1 home defeat to the Netherlands in June stands out, although Belgium did go on to come from behind and thrash Poland 6-1 in the very next game. Since then, their two wins against Poland and Wales have been uninspiring – as has the football. A narrow 1-0 defeat to the Netherlands in their most recent game, with Virgil Van Dijk heading in from a corner, hasn’t inspired any optimism ahead of the tournament.
Belgium have only one friendly against Egypt on November 18 before taking on Canada in their opening match.
Belgium’s last five results
Belgium 6-1 Poland
Wales 1-1 Belgium
Poland 0-1 Belgium
Belgium 2-1 Wales
Netherlands 1-0 Belgium
All things considered, this Belgium team is far from the threat it used to be and they will struggle to advance deep into the tournament as they did in Russia. The playmaking ability of De Bruyne alone should be enough for Belgium to navigate a tricky group containing Croatia and Morocco but after that, they could then face either Spain or Germany.
Any team with pace could seriously expose Alderweireld and Vertonghen in the Belgian backline and without a fully fit and firing Lukaku there isn’t enough of a goal threat at the other end. Both potential opponents would be a nightmare matchup and one you can’t really see this ageing Belgium side winning.
Prediction: Last 16