Belgium have sent a warning shot to every single team in Russia at the moment. They’re here and they are one to fear. Or are they? Two impressive performances in a row have seen Roberto Martinez’s men propelled to prohibitive favourites in the minds of many. Is it warranted? Are they as good as the hype suggests? The bottom half of the draw is going a bit differently than planned as the competition’s two most successful teams are on a Round of 16 collision course. After that, it could very well be Belgium. Let’s see where we are after two matches:
1. Goodbye to the Haters and the Doubters
If there ever was a stage for Romelu Lukaku to stamp his class for the world to see, it was this one. Two games, four goals, and the towering Manchester United striker has put himself right in the golden boot running. In becoming the first man since Diego Maradona in 1986 to score two or more goals in consecutive World Cup matches, Lukaku has gone some way to shedding the weight of a Jose Mourinho season.
The flaws are still there. Kevin de Bruyne, himself cruising to two good, but not great, performances so far fed him with a short diagonal pass against Tunisia, only for the man reputed to have a rapist first touch to assault the ball as he tried to turn and run in one motion. Lukaku does try to do too much with the ball at times as he is a final ball striker. He always goes for the jugular, the risky pass. Then, he attempted to use one touch to set the stage for the next touch to be a shot at goal. It didn’t work. What has worked, though, is the sublime finishes that ooze class. A Lukaku in form is a danger to all. Can he do it against better opposition?
The brightest spark has been the imperial Eden Hazard. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before from Chelsea’s talisman. A sometimes one-man attacking show at Stamford Bridge, Eden has combined his talents of dribbling, wavy runs, deft touch, and supreme balance and strength to be the leading man in a Belgian shirt thus far.
While de Bruyne and Dries Mertens have barely left second gear, he and Lukaku are flooring it. This team allows him to shine because, unlike at Chelsea, where the opponent expects the magic to come from him and only him, there are five more to worry about going forward. He’s an early contender for Golden Ball, and he’s not the only one from the Belgian outfit.
He’s made the best of a group in which the weaker teams have come to play and conceded as a result. Take it all at face value at your own peril. They’ve been impressive but there are concerns.
3. That defensive balance though
Life is a give and take. For all the verve shown going forward, Belgium have looked vulnerable to any attack mounted against them. Tunisia very clearly targeted their left side, manned by Dalian Yifang winger, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco. Deployed in a left wing-back role, his propensity for going forward is evident; but this has been his downfall as he still plays the role of a winger with little care for his defensive duties.
This would have been acceptable had Thomas Meunier been a Cesar Azpilicueta type, but Meunier himself can be found bombing down the right flank to offer support to the front three as both Mertens and Hazard roam free in central areas.
It begs the question as to whether this tactic may need to be revisited against a stronger team, perhaps one that possesses pace and skill down in the wide and inside forward areas. In Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, England have two live threats. Will the Belgian stars blow them away, rendering this point moot? We’d like to see, but no one can deny the trouble Wahbi Khazri, Fakhereedine Ben Youssef, and Ferjani Sassi caused whenever they targeted Carrasco. Maybe he combats that imbalance with a 4-3-3 including Mousa Dembele at the expense of Carrasco or Dedryck Boyata. The question is whether he’ll mess with a winning formula. Does it win against a rampant Neymar, Joshua Kimmich, or Sterling?