Given the way the draw is skewed in favour of the teams in the top half of the draw, Belgium’s 2-0 loss to Italy in their first match might just be one of the best results of the entire group stage. Marc Wilmots’ side will face Hungary in their last-16 tie, with the winner facing a quarter-final against Wales or Northern Ireland. How’s that for good fortune?
England – or at least those following the national football team – is a country divided. In one corner stand those worried by the struggles against Russia and Slovakia, pointing out that if you can’t score against worse teams or defend against better ones, there aren’t many teams left to beat. In the other corner are those who feel Roy Hodgson and his team have suffered from misfortune, not incompetence. Only the next week will prove one camp right.
For England, read Belgium too. Limp, dismal defeat against Italy was followed by impressive victory over Ireland and a stop-start win over a Sweden team that comfortably finished bottom of the group. We are not the only country scratching our heads and arguing over office desks, still trying to work out how good our team is.
For Wilmots, the need is arguably even greater than Hodgson. While glorious quarter-final failure, now as ingrained in English culture as chicken tikka masala and worrying about when to say thank you, might be enough for two more years of Roy, Wilmots must seek a higher plane. The attacking players he has at his disposal makes progression to the semi-finals a must; anything else and he may lose his job. Given that Belgium have only twice before reached the semi-finals of a major tournament, it’s an imposing task.
Wilmots’ biggest issue is getting the maximum out of the best front four in the competition, and perhaps the second best in the world after Argentina. While Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku all fired against Ireland, they were again imperfect and strangely hesitant against Sweden. Lukaku’s runs are often ignored by attacking midfielders too prone to passing backwards than stretching the game and creating space; he too is guilty of not gambling on that final ball across goal. Again, Belgium and England are mumbling from the same hymn sheet.
Yet that is only the first headache Wilmots faces before Sunday evening. For long periods against Sweden, his team played as a genuine 4-2-4 formation, with a defence left worryingly exposed and Radja Nainggolan and Axel Witsel asked to hold back the tide. Any team with more accomplished attacking players than Emil Forsberg, Sebastian Larsson and Marcus Berg to support the main striker will surely take advantage of Belgium’s lack of defensive resolve. Thibaut Courtois made a wonderful save at 0-0, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic harshly had a goal ruled out for offside on his international swansong. Wilmots still refuses to pick Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen as central defenders, with Jordan Lukaku at left-back.
In the last World Cup, Belgium wholly failed to live up to expectations as one of the favourites. Two years later, progress is obvious but hardly pronounced enough to warrant mass hysteria. The Red Devils are playing with the handbrake on, and the lack of drive is highly frustrating for the neutral.
The accusation is clear: This is still a collection of talented individuals achieving in spite of Wilmots, not turned into a team by him. Prove us wrong, and he could easily be a European Championship-winning manager in three weeks’ time.