Belgium’s start to Euro 2016 has been anything but smooth, with talk of unrest in the camp following an opening 2-0 defeat to Italy being replaced by optimism after the talented Red Devils cut loose against Ireland.
With a talent pool that nearly every other side in the competition would be envious of, this was supposed to be the tournament at which this generation of Belgian players competed for the title. Now, though, there are major doubts.
Sport360’s James Piercy and Matt Monaghan debate: Can Belgium be considered realistic Euro 2016 winners?
James Piercy, deputy editor, says YES
They say the Devil has many faces and, already, Marc Wilmots Rode Duivels have shown their ability to be brilliant or maddeningly mediocre.
Their 2-0 defeat to Italy was the first ‘shock’ result of Euro 2016 and immediately cast serious doubt over their roles as title contenders and dragged up all the familiar arguments about Wilmots’ coaching, team selection and squad chemistry.
Yet, five days later Belgium destroyed the Republic of Ireland with some scintillating counter-attacking football; Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne showing signs of their best form in a comprehensive 3-0 victory.
So, deciphering how good Belgium actually are is a little tricky. They certainly have the talent to go all the way: one of the world’s best keepers, two of the Premier League’s finest defenders, a midfield blend of craft, graft and creativity; pace, guile and trickery out wide plus four strikers all capable of leading the line; how many other sides would crave for at least one recognised No. 9?
Belgium’s issues lie with Wilmots inability to settle on a first XI (in a way, you can’t blame him) and overcoming a mental barrier. The latter is why the Ireland result, however flattering, was so important and why Sweden on Wednesday – among the tournament’s worst three sides – can further boost belief.
The result against Italy (and Belgium weren’t as bad as the score suggested) could have been the best thing for Wilmots as it forced him into picking a more balanced and varied starting line-up, one he must now stick with.
Marouane Fellaini, Dries Mertens, Radja Nainggolan and Divock Origi are all potential solutions off the bench for different problems; barring injury, they should remain in those roles.
No team has options of that depth and variance. They now also have that priceless commodity of a confident and in-form striker and playmaker.
There should be no mercy for Sweden, the Belgians must continue on an upward curve going into the knockouts. By the time the quarter-finals start, this could be some team.
Matt Monaghan, reporter, says NO
A lot can change in one half of football. Reputations can be made and perceptions changed. But do not let Belgium’s 3-0 triumph against a bedraggled Republic of Ireland fool you. The continent’s highest-ranked nation are still in no condition to lift Euro 2016.
A 45-minute blitzkrieg against the Boys in Green has proved the short memories which exist within the beautiful game. The more-insightful example came from last week’s 2-0 loss to fellow heavyweights Italy.
The knockout stages will show Belgium for what they truly are, a loose collection of supremely-talented players led by an ill-suited coach.
Saturday’s match was the perfect time for Belgium to bathe in the sunshine which cascaded down in Bordeaux, as they took on an unequal fight. A study of the clubs which their attack and Ireland’s defence play for tells it all.
Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid) and Romelu Lukaku (Everton) were up against Darren Randolph (West Ham’s reserve goalkeeper), Seamus Coleman (Everton), John O’Shea (Sunderland), Ciaran Clark (Aston Villa) and Stephen Ward (Burnley).
A rout was inevitable, and even then we had to wait until after half-time for the goals to flow. It is pertinent to also remember Shane Long was the victim of a kick to the head at 0-0 which should have seen a penalty awarded. At 1-0 down, would a fractured Belgium have possessed the character to rebound?
Long-standing ill-feeling in the squad towards Marc Wilmots appeared in the wake of the Italy defeat. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois put it best, saying: “Tactically, technically and organisationally we came up short.”
The dynamic Mousa Dembele which excelled in the Premier League last term was still missing in action, while the continued faith in centre-back Thomas Vermaelen after hardly kicking a ball for Barcelona is a ticking time bomb when obvious solutions are in house.
Ability can take them so far. Yet as the underwhelming World Cup 2014 display showed, it will not be enough.