Belgium are currently the top-rated European nation in the FIFA World Rankings, sitting second after the most recent update to Argentina.
Yet in many quarters they are still considered dark horses to win Euro 2016. This is understandable based on their history, with Belgium having only qualified for one European Championships since 1984. This was when they were eliminated in the group stages as co-hosts in 2000.
Now it’s Belgium’s turn, with one dilemma facing manager Marc Wilmots being how he will replace skipper Vincent Kompany, who could be out until September because of a thigh injury.
The following squad list shows that Wilmots is certainly not short in the way of talented options:
— BelgianRedDevils (@BelRedDevils) May 12, 2016
Such depth has meant there is no place for the likes of Premier League pair Nacer Chadli and Kevin Mirallas, alongside Adnan Januzaj and Thorgan Hazard.
Belgium are in a challenging Group E with Italy, the Republic of Ireland and Sweden and are fashionable options at 10/1 to win Euro 2016.
They will also be fashionable on the field based on this kit design:
— sportsultima.com (@sportsultima) May 16, 2016
Tottenham pair Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen should be highlighted as being especially critical to Belgium’s hope of Euro 2016 success.
They have both started five successive Red Devils victories this campaign, including a 3-1 success over opening Group E opponents Italy, before neither was available for selection for the last Belgium friendly, which ended in a 2-1 defeat to Portugal.
What is significant though is that even when both are available to Wilmots, he starts them in full-back positions.
Belgium are slightly unfortunate to be blessed with numerous good candidates to perform at the heart of the defence, with natural options to start at full-back at a slightly lesser standard. This has resulted in Alderweireld and Vertonghen almost being punished for their versatility.
Despite their strong form, it should still be considered a worry that Belgium have kept just the single clean in their last eight internationals, which arrived in Cyprus. Androrra and Israel are among the sides to have breached the Belgian backline.
Vertonghen and Alderweireld’s partnership was a big reason why Tottenham went so close to winning the Premier League this season, with Spurs owning the best defensive record until capitulating against Newcastle on the final day.
The pair’s strengths and weaknesses blend well, with Alderweireld an organiser with good positional sense, technical ability and the nous to defend cleverly with his brain, while Vertonghen is better on the front foot challenging for the ball and a bit quicker across the ground.
The fact both are capable full-backs also helps if they get dragged from central positions into the wide areas.
There is no doubting both can do a job in the full-back roles because of their comfort in possession and ability to move forward with the ball, bit Alderweireld is limited in particular by his lack of pace.
The likely lads
“He has the best profile to replace Vincent Kompany. He is fast, allowing the team to play and press.”
This was Wilmots’ assessment of Kompany’s Manchester City teammate Jason Denayer, who is seemingly in pole position to stand in for the skipper, particularly after a productive season on loan at Galatasaray.
However, in this mixed up story of defenders playing out of position, the 20-year-old spent much of the season in Turkey performing at right-back, even if he is a centre half by trade and eventually got some gametime in his preferred role towards the end of the campaign.
The only defender apparently void of the constant shuffling is Nicolas Lombaerts, although he has been suffering from some injury concerns in recent weeks and is still far from certain to be passed fit for Euro 2016.
Playing the Tottenham way
Wilmots does have actual full-backs in his squad, with Thomas Meunier regularly seen at right-back for Club Brugge and Jordan Lukaku an improving left-back for Oostende.
There are reservations over the defensive qualities of the pair, given their licence to roam forward constantly in the Belgian top-flight for their club sides.
But this isn’t dissimilar to what Aldeweireld and Vertonghen are used to with Spurs, as Kyle Walker and Danny Rose are very attack-minded full-backs.
In midfield, Moussa Dembele obviously understands the Tottenham way, while Axel Witsel is more than an adept defensive option capable of providing the protection in front of the back four Spurs have become accustomed to from Eric Dier.
Yet Wilmots is not a manager to go wild with changes and this would certainly seem too much of a widespread shift so close to the tournament. Another burning question is will the use of what are effectively four central defenders provide enough attacking support to win Euro 2016?
Belgian have Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, but Group E is not straightforward and they are far from certain to make it out.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.