With the likes of Hazard, De Bruyne, Lukaku, Carrasco, Nainggolan, Courtois, Kompany, Vertonghen, Vermaelen, and Mertens – to name just a few – Belgium has a golden generation of footballers more than worthy of the name. Much was expected of this side at Euro 2016 in France but the Belgians fell short at the quarter-final stage of that competition. At the World Cup in Russia this summer, they have another chance to capitalize on arguably the finest group of players the country has ever produced.
Under former Everton manager, Roberto Martinez, Belgium sauntered to World Cup qualification by topping UEFA group H with 9 wins and a draw from 10 matches. Those games included eye-catching 8-1 and 9-0 victories over Estonia and Gibraltar respectively. Romelu Lukaku led the way with 11 goals in qualifying and the Manchester United frontman will lead the line at the World Cup. In Russia, Belgium will face rank outsiders Panama and Tunisia in group G along with Gareth Southgate’s England. On paper, this section looks like a battle between the top two sides for first place, but there are plenty of reasons to believe Belgium represent good value at odds of 4/5.
Their best ever World Cup finish was the 4th place achieved at Mexico ‘86, but they failed to progress beyond the round of 16 in the next four tournaments. After a barren spell in which they didn’t qualify for the 2006 and 2010 editions, Belgium made it to the quarter-finals of Brazil 2014. Having topped Group H with three wins over Russia, Algeria, and South Korea, they went on to beat the United States in the second round, before losing out to eventual finalists Argentina in the last eight by a goal to nil.
Tipped as a dark horse by many punters for Euro 2016, Belgium suffered an early defeat to Italy in group E. However, they hit back with victories over Republic of Ireland and Sweden to qualify for the knockout stage alongside the Italians. A 4-0 thumping of Hungary in the round of 16 saw them breeze to the quarter-finals, but they suffered a shock 3-1 defeat to the surprise of the tournament, Wales, and were sent packing with tails between legs. Such were the expectations among fans, this was seen as a disappointing end to a competition that promised so much, and there is a feeling that Belgium has unfinished business on the international stage.
Goal Difference the Deciding Factor
Only Saudi Arabia is rated lower in the betting than Tunisia and Panama to win the World Cup, so two of Belgium’s opponents in group G should be put to the sword. With goal difference a potential deciding factor for group supremacy, the Belgians attacking and free-scoring nature will stand them in good stead to finish above the only genuine contender for first place – England. Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions have flattered to deceive on the international stage and rarely look like a side with a coherent game plan or style of football. They topped UEFA qualifying group H with 26 points from 8 wins and 2 draws but laboured to slender victories over the likes of Malta, Lithuania, and Slovenia – twice needing late injury-time goals to spare the blushes.
Belgium scored 43 goals during the qualifying campaign and conceded 6. This compares very favourably to England’s record of just 18 goals scored and 3 conceded. Both will be expected to beat group minnows Tunisia and Panama, but only the most optimistic England fan would back his side to score more than Belgium in those games. The two will meet in the final group G match at Russia 2018, the fixture scheduled for the 28th of June in Kaliningrad. There is every chance that qualification to the knockout stage will be all but secured for both sides, and that match could be a straight shootout for the top spot in the group. Given the relative abilities of both sides, Belgium is sure to be favourite for the match (they are currently quoted as favourite ahead of the tournament), and there is also the possibility that goal difference could mean the Belgians will top the group even with a draw.
Taking all the evidence into account, Belgium looks a solid bet to win first place in group G as they look to realize the potential of a golden generation of players.