Can Belgium win the World Cup?
For the past two World Cup cycles we've heard how good Belgium are. This is their golden generation. There are world-class players throughout the lineup, perhaps even on the bench. So, maybe it's true, but Marc Wilmots wasn't able to mould them into a team. Now it's Roberto Martinez's turn.
Only, while some contenders for this year's tournament engaged difficult opponents in the final international break before the European club calendar ends, Belgium took on a pair of lightweights. There wasn't anything 4-0 results against Cyprus and Saudi Arabia could tell us we didn't already know. The big question remains. Can this Belgian side win the World Cup?
Here are three reasons they might.
The Manchester United striker continued his rich vein of form for club and country. He scored twice in the two friendlies, notching his 10th goal in six games for Belgium. He has already become his country’s record scorer. He can cement his status as a national legend by significantly adding to that total in Russia. He only has the one from Brazil. A performance delivers his national Red Devils to glory would draw him level with former coach Marc Wilmots, who tops the Belgian list with five. There is every reason to believe he can do it, considering the team behind him.
How can this not be the best group Belgium has seen? Given the talent on offer, expectations are justified.
In midfield, Roberto Martinez appears to have settled on Kevin De Bruyne and Axel Witsel. He can also call on Radja Nainggolan and Moussa Dembele when needed. Or Marouane Fellaini. Or Youri Tielemans. You get the idea.
The defence features Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderwereild, Jan Vertonghen, and Thomas Meunier. Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Ciman, and Dedrick Boyata are fallback options.
Up front, who do you want to work with Lukaku and Eden Hazard? Yannick Carrasco? Dries Mertens? Christian Benteke? Michy Batshuayi? I could go on.
In goal, there's Thibaut Courtois, but also Simon Mignolet.
About the only error Roberto Martinez could make when filling out his teamsheet is in spelling. It's the tactics he must sweat.
In September, Martinez named 27-year-old Eden Hazard as permanent skipper. At the time, there was doubt whether Vincent Kompany would make it back. The Manchester City centre-half has, and he is happy to support his Chelsea rival as a countryman.
While Hazard is not the most vocal player, he leads by example. His discipline is not in doubt nor his ability. On the pitch, he can get lost if opponents press high. It has happened at Chelsea this season. The added responsibility forces him to keep his head in the game, to look at the bigger picture. So far, it has worked. The big test is yet to come.
Belgium must do well at this summer’s tournament after disappointing at Euro 16 and in Brazil. After barely surviving the United States four years ago, they crashed out in the quarters to Argentina. Gonzalo Higuain scored in the ninth minute. Belgium couldn't find an answer with all the time in the world. Martinez will have to get them at least into the semifinals for this tournament to be considered a success.
The Spaniard has opted to test the team in the matches immediately before the competition. Portugal, Egypt, and Costa Rica are on the calendar in early June. That will put his side up against two clinical finishers in Cristiano Ronaldo and Mo Salah. Arguably, those are must-win games to set a tone for the real tests to come. That's quite a risk. It could pay off handsomely or blow up in Martinez's face. Which will it be?