The consensus is clear: Belgium is taking the strongest squad in its history to the 2018 World Cup.
It is also taking heavy expectations. It is stacked with quality players -- Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Vincent Kompany, Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois -- throughout the roster and is led by Spanish manager Roberto Martinez, hired two years ago after a stunning 3-1 loss to Wales in the Euro 2016 quarterfinals under predecessor and former Belgian international Marc Wilmots.
Wilmots paid the price for that setback. Much had been expected after Belgium fell at the same stage at the 2014 World Cup (1-0 to Argentina), and after it blasted through its 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign by going unbeaten (nine wins, one tie) and racking up 43 goals, the pressure is building in a nation that remembers well a stirring run to the 1986 semifinals that ended with a 2-0 loss to eventual champion Argentina.
A few veterans of that team, including its captain, Jan Ceulemans, have proclaimed this version to be superior. How Martinez can instill enough confidence and expertise to handle that pressure has been one of his primary tasks the past two years during a very routine qualifying campaign.
In the 1986 tournament, Belgium survived a penalty-kick tiebreaker against Spain in the quarterfinals. In 2018, if Belgium reaches the quarters it will likely face either Brazil or Germany, and as daunting as either scenario would be, it is precisely that kind of game Belgium must win to raise its stature another notch. Four years ago, prior to the match against Spain, Belgium could have been eliminated by the USA in the round of 16, but a Chris Wondolowski miss in stoppage time of a 0-0 game set the stage for extra time and a 2-1 Belgian victory.
Enthusiasm at home was roiled by a emphatic 4-1 defeat of Costa Rica Monday in the team’s send-off match in Brussels. Romelu Lukaku scored twice as the entire team fed on the energy of Eden Hazard, who tore through the Costa Ricans repeatedly and played a role in all four goals before departing in the 70th minute limping slightly and grimacing.
Martinez praised the performance and downplayed the injury. "He took a knock on his leg, it's a dead leg. He'll be totally fine," the coach said in his postgame comments. “I thought he looked really strong. He had to ride a few challenges, as you would expect.
“He played in a really good position, a bit more centrally, where he found a bit more space and could link up with Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens. I thought his positioning was very clever.
“He looked strong, he looked sharp, and that's the positive outcome of his performance."
The concerns of Belgium’s chances lie not in its potent attack but rather a defense sometimes deemed unreliable. Courtois didn’t have an excellent season at Chelsea and some of Tottenham’s defensive troubles pointed to the Belgian duo of Toby Alberweireld and Jan Vertonghen.
Alberweireld’s struggles with injuries this season had been addressed by Martinez in late March. “Every player needs to get a really good period of football now,” the Spaniard said at the time. “Seven weeks is not a lot of time. Certain players that play a lot of minutes, the playing time now is not essential. But other players who have not played that much, and Toby can be one of those – it is important.”
A poorly headed clearance by Vertonghen enabled Costa Rica to take a 1-0 lead on Monday. Striker Bryan Ruiz – like many Belgian players a veteran of English club soccer – snapped up the chance to score. Though Belgium roared back to win going away, those types of errors occasionally plagued the team during an otherwise dominant display in the qualifying phase.
Belgium played the friendly without Kompany. He sat out the game with an injury, which is a situation Martinez knows can recur at any time, given the forceful manner in which Kompany plays.
Dreis Mertens, who has scored 58 goals for Napoli the past two seasons, matched Ruiz’s goal by converting a feed from Hazard and then delivered a precise cross that Lukaku put away shortly before halftime. Hazard’s Chelsea teammate, Michy Batshuayi, and former Chelsea player Lukaku added goals in the second half and a thunderous ovation saluted the victory at the final whistle.
Martinez chose to extol the positives of coming from behind, citing the rally as indicative of resolute spirit. “We've got the talent but, clearly, a country like Germany already has the belief,” he said. “When you speak with ex-players from Germany they tell you that when they pulled on the shirt they had no doubt they would win. That psychology is powerful in knockout tournaments.
“We need to show that mentality and I believe we will because our attitude and talent is very good.”