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World Cup preview: Belgium

Ahead of this summer's World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole assesses the chances of Belgium, whose golden generation go into the tournament ranked third in the world.

Belgium will arrive at this summer's World Cup with plenty of expectation on their shoulders as their golden generation aims to live up to the hype in Russia.

Ranked third in the world and boasting the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku amongst their ranks, the Red Devils may never have a better chance to etch their name on the World Cup trophy for the first time.

The Belgium team line up before their friendly game with Portugal on June 2, 2018© Reuters

A lack of experience compared to some of the the favourites may leave them still under the tag of dark horses for many, but if their best players reach their full potential this summer then they should be capable of beating anyone on their day.

Here, Sports Mole assesses Belgium's chances at Russia 2018.


GROUP

Belgium will have been quietly content with the World Cup draw when they were placed alongside England, Panama and Tunisia in Group G.

World Cup Group G

Panama are appearing in the World Cup for the first time in their history, whereas Tunisia's only ever victory at the tournament came 40 years ago, so Belgium are expected to battle it out with England for top spot.

The duo will both be hopeful of having qualified by the time they face each other in their final group game, although there will still be plenty riding on that game if results go as expected, with the winners of the group likely to avoid Poland in the last 16.

BELGIUM FIXTURES

June 18: Belgium vs. Panama (4pm, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi)
June 23: Belgium vs. Tunisia (1pm, Otkritie Arena, Moscow)
June 28: England vs. Belgium (7pm, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Belgium recorded an unbeaten qualifying campaign for the second World Cup in a row on their way to Russia, dropping just two points from their 10 outings in Group H.

Only Germany can boast a better qualifying record, but Belgium matched the world champions in the goalscoring stakes with 43 from 10 games, conceding only six along the way.

Belgium's players celebrate qualifying for the 2018 World Cup following a win over Greece© Reuters

The Red Devils scored at least three goals in seven of their matches, including nine on one occasion and eight on another - although those routs did come against minnows Estonia and Gibraltar.

A 1-1 draw with Greece in Brussels midway through the group stages was the only blemish on their otherwise perfect qualifying record, while the standout game for Roberto Martinez's side was a thrilling 4-3 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina in October 2017.

Never before have Belgium enjoyed such a strong qualifying campaign, and they will now be hoping that translates into the tournament itself.


RECENT FORM

The momentum built up by the Red Devils during that successful qualifying campaign has been carried into their warm-up matches ahead of the finals.

After playing out a goalless home draw with Portugal last month, Belgium then brushed aside a Mohamed Salah-less Egypt and Costa Rica to make it a whopping 19 matches unbeaten, spanning close to two years.

Belgium's Romelu Lukaku celebrates scoring their second goal in the friendly against Costa Rica on June 11, 2018© Reuters

The goal conceded in their final friendly before setting off for Russia came completely against the run of play, and marked the first time that their net has been breached in five matches.

However, the one concern is that Martinez's men have not really taken on opponents of any real calibre during their long-running unbeaten streak, with Portugal the only side that can really fall into that category.

Beating the also-rans has been simple enough; overcoming the likes of France, Spain, Germany and Brazil may be a different matter entirely.


SQUAD

Belgium World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: Koen Casteels (Wolfsburg), Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool).

Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Dedryck Boyata (Celtic), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Thomas Meunier (Paris St-Germain), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham).

Midfielders: Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang), Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City), Mousa Dembele (Tottenham), Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Monchengladbach), Adnan Januzaj (Real Sociedad), Youri Tielemans (Monaco), Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian).

Forwards: Michy Batshuayi (Chelsea), Nacer Chadli (West Brom), Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United), Dries Mertens (Napoli).


STAR PLAYER - Eden Hazard

Eden Hazard in action for Belgium on June 2, 2018© Reuters

No longer in the category of 'dark horses', a nation boasting one of the strongest squads in the competition has to live up to their hype by ending their quarter-final hoodoo.

If Lukaku is the man tasked with scoring the goals, and De Bruyne creating them from a deeper position, then it is down to Hazard to combine the two.

The Chelsea forward scored six goals and set up five more in qualifying, proving to be one of the most efficient players on the Road to Russia.

Not for the first time, Hazard will head into a major tournament with a question mark over his club future, with Real Madrid being repeatedly linked with the ex-Lille ace.

Hazard now has a clean sweep of domestic honours at Chelsea following his man of the match display in the FA Cup final win over Manchester United, on top of a Europa League triumph from 2013, and he will hope to carry that form into the finals in Russia.


MANAGER - Roberto Martinez

Belgium manager Roberto Martinez on October 10, 2017© Reuters

Martinez was a somewhat surprising choice to replace Marc Wilmots in August 2016, less than two months after being sacked by Everton amid growing fan unrest.

However, the Spaniard led Belgium through an unbeaten qualifying campaign as they became the first European side to book their place at the World Cup aside from hosts Russia.

This summer will be his first taste of a major international tournament, though, and questions will no doubt remain as to how he will fare considering his only previous managerial experience came at club level in England with Swansea City, Wigan Athletic and Everton.

As a player the 44-year-old won the Copa del Rey with Real Zaragoza in 1994, but the bulk of his career was played out in the lower leagues of English football, again with Wigan and Swansea.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: Fourth place (1986)

Belgium's players celebrate beating USA in the last 16 of the 2014 World Cup© Reuters

Belgium's best ever World Cup run came in Mexico in 1986 when they made it all the way to the semi-finals before running into Diego Maradona and Argentina.

The Red Devils were not entirely convincing in that tournament despite their significant progress, though, scraping through the group stages despite finishing third before needing extra time to beat the Soviet Union in the last 16 and penalties to get past Spain in the quarter-finals.

Brazil 2014 was billed as Belgium's best hope to go far since that tournament, and sure enough they won all of their group games and edged past United States in the last 16, but once again Argentina halted their progress, this time in the last eight.

That tournament four years ago was the first time Belgium had qualified for the World Cup since 2002, but they have at least made it through the first round in six of their last seven appearances, having failed to do so in their first five.

Overall Belgium have played 41 World Cup matches, winning 14, drawning nine and losing 18 while scoring 52 goals and conceding 66 in the process.


PREDICTION

Belgium are one of the more intriguing nations at this summer's tournament; rarely has so much been expected of a nation with such a modest World Cup history.

We expect the Red Devils to pip England to top spot in Group G and subsequently overcome Poland in the last 16, but their hopes of bettering the class of 1986 could be ended by Brazil in the quarters.

VERDICT: Quarter-finals

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How far will Belgium go at this summer's World Cup?

Group Stages
Last 16
Quarter-finals
Semi-finals
Runners-up
Winners
Group Stages
0.0%
Last 16
7.1%
Quarter-finals
42.9%
Semi-finals
21.4%
Runners-up
28.6%
Winners
0.0%
Eden Hazard in action for Belgium on June 2, 2018
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