By Sudipto Ganguly
(Reuters) – Belgium will go to the World Cup in Russia replete with enviable talent but Roberto Martinez’s side will have to guard against their perennial habit of underwhelming at major tournaments.
Ranked third in the world by FIFA, the Red Devils boast top-level Premier League performers in their side and will be one of the firm favourites to lift the World Cup trophy on July 15 in Moscow.
Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne will join Chelsea playmaker Eden Hazard in a dominant midfield and will be expected to produce the chances for Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku, who at 25 is already the country’s top scorer with 33 goals.
Twenty-six-year-old De Bruyne has been the linchpin with Pep Guardiola’s record-breaking English champions Manchester City, registering more assists than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues since 2012.
Hazard has failed to help Chelsea retain their league crown but is still the club’s top performer.
Mousa Dembele will add steel to the creativity, while the defence will be marshalled by players such as Tottenham Hotspur duo Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, who has recently struggled to get much game time.
Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois will man the goal, helping to provide the side with an ideal mix of the exuberance of youth and the experience required in the latter stages of the tournament.
They have indicated they are capable of attaining that, cruising through their World Cup qualification group and becoming the first European nation to secure their spot for the finals.
Belgium finished as Group H winners in European qualifying, winning nine games and drawing one, and scoring an astounding 43 goals in the process.
“It was not an objective in this campaign to score a lot of goals but because of the standard of the squad we achieved it,” said Martinez, the 44-year-old Spaniard who was a surprise successor to Marc Wilmots, who was fired after Belgium’s loss to Wales in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.
“We scored because we created chances — evidence that the team is doing well.”
The perennial dark horses, however, arrived in Brazil four years ago with similar expectations but could progress only to the quarter-finals, where they lost 1-0 to Argentina.
Their best performance remains their semi-final appearance in 1986 when they again fell to Argentina, the eventual champions.
To avoid that fate this time around, Martinez will have to make sure his side have a solid foundation to allow his exciting attacking options to flourish.
With Panama, Tunisia and England the other teams, topping Group G should not be too difficult for Belgium but Martinez will need to find the right formula to balance that attack and defence.
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai; editing by Neville Dalton)