LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 02: Scott Parker of England clashes with Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel of Belgium during the international friendly match between England and Belgium at Wembley Stadium on June 2, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
2014 World Cup Qualification
National Team: Belgium
Also known as: Rote Teufel (the Red Devils)
Qualification thus far: Begins Friday, September 7
This week: Belgium v Wales
Key Players: Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, Moussa Dembele
Villans in Belgium: Christian Benteke
When you look at the squad list for Belgium's first two World Cup qualifiers, you can't help but wonder why the matches in Group A are even being played. In addition to the four key players listed above. Belgium have Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen at the back, Dries Mertens and Kevin De Bruyne as part of the attacking midfield, and Kevin Mirallas up top. The Belgians are the ones everyone is talking about, and for good reason: as individuals, they're pretty terrifying.
But the talent of individual players hasn't translated to recent success on the international level. In the leadup to South Africa, Belgium came in fourth in their group, just two points above Estonia and finishing behind Turkey, Bosnia and Spain. For Euro 2012, the Belgians just barely lost out on a spot -- but had they not played out a dire 1-1 draw against Turkey in the final match, they would have at least made it to the qualifying playoffs.
Still, it's difficult to imagine that the side won't go far this time around. This is a very young side -- if you remove the outliers, their average age is about 24. The Belgians are quite trendy right now, being snatched up like candy by fat owners. Hazard went to Chelsea, of course, while Tottenham Hotspur picked up Dembélé and Jan Vertonghen and Everton grabbed Mirallas. Then Zenit St. Petersburg got in on the action this week, buying Witsel for €40m. And, of course, our very own Aston Villa went to great lengths to capture the signature of Benteke.
Will all this translate to success as a national side? The most current indicator came last month, when Belgium defeated the Netherlands 4-2 in a friendly. Benteke scored first, but Holland came back to score three goals in five minutes. A thrilling encounter, and one that bodes well both for Belgium's chances at World Cup football and for fans looking for a great match.
Of course, the question Villa fans are asking is: Will Benteke play? The rumour has been that he will -- but that rumour doesn't really gel with reality. Yes, he had a look-in during the friendlies, but Belgium are set on going to Brazil and they're only going to play their strongest side -- even if the opponent is Wales. Sadly, that probably doesn't include starting a 21-year-old who missed his last couple games with Genk. This certainly doesn't mean that Villa were wrong to buy him, or that he won't be a starter for the national side at any time. It only indicates the wealth of options that Belgium have going forward, and that they're much more likely to put Hazard into a three-man front line, or play Mirallas on his own up top. And can you really blame them?