Published 27/05/2016 at 19:08 GMT | Updated 10/06/2016 at 17:07 GMT
Belgium cannot be called dark horses anymore. Marc Wilmots’ side is among the favourites to win Euro 2016 and anything short of a semi-final place would certainly feel like a disappointment for a country whose talents keep on rolling off the production line. A quarter-final finish at the World Cup in Brazil came despite the sense that Belgium ought to be making more of the resources at their disposal; they have only lost twice since that narrow reverse to Argentina and, if they come out at full tilt in France, they might just be able to deliver the sparkling performance they seem to have been building up to for years. It would be about time; this is only their third European Championship since 1980, when they finished runners-up.
Will we see the best of Romelu Lukaku? The striker has not always been a snug fit in Wilmots’ team, with Christian Benteke sometimes preferred, but had a prolific season with Everton until the side’s collective downing of tools with 10 games to go. He appears to have spent much of the time since making eyes at other clubs but Belgium need him to be at his unplayable best, with Benteke having endured a frustrating year at Liverpool and Divock Origi, for all his clear improvement after Christmas, returning to fitness after injury. Belgium can call upon plenty of attacking quality but none of them seem in perfect nick.
One of Belgium’s problems at the World Cup was a lack of fluidity on the ball but fielding Kevin De Bruyne centrally, backed by the efficient and tigerish Radja Nainggolan, provides more urgency and there is trickery out wide from Eden Hazard and perhaps Dries Mertens. The biggest issue lies in defence, where Vincent Kompany’s injury rules him out of the tournament and probably means a place for young Manchester City team-mate Jason Denayer, recently on loan at Galatasaray. Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen would doubtless be able to replicate their fine Tottenham partnership in the middle if needed, but will remain first-choice full-backs.
THE MANAGER: MARC WILMOTS
There are some who wonder whether another coach might make more of Belgium’s vast talent pool than Wilmots, but the 47-year-old has done a good job of steadily improving the team’s performance since stepping up from his previous role of assistant in 2012. As a player, he was a national team stalwart for 12 years, earning 70 caps, and featured in Belgium’s last European Championship campaign back in 2000 – when they co-hosted the tournament. Wilmots had a brief political career as a senator for the Reformist Movement after his playing career ended.
TOP THREE PLAYERS
Kevin De Bruyne: There are few players around who can shift a team through the gears as quickly and smoothly as De Bruyne, a dynamic playmaker whose vision and intelligence are matched by incredible energy. He came back from injury in fine form for Manchester City during the spring.
Eden Hazard: Hazard’s underwhelming season at Chelsea has been well documented but there was clear improvement towards the end, with four goals in his last five games, and if he hits top form in France then Belgium will have a real chance.
Belgium's Eden Hazard looks on after scoring against Cyprus during their Euro 2016 group B qualification soccer match at the GSP stadium in Nicosia, Cyprus September 6, 2015. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou
Image credit: Eurosport
Radja Nainggolan: The Roma midfielder missed out on a World Cup place but was outstanding in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, his bite and tenacity making a genuine difference and making him an undisputed first-choice pick.
SOCIAL MEDIA STAR
Belgium are pretty active on the social media front and Dries Mertens looks likely to be a particularly source of smiles, selfies and other group shots from the Euro 2016 camp.
Perhaps Lukaku is worth keeping an eye on too, for any transfer hints.
The playmaking duties have switched from Eden Hazard to Kevin De Bruyne, although both are likely to start in a 4-2-3-1. A lack of orthodox full-backs means Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are likely to be deployed there, which can leave Belgium short of attacking width and split the team into discrete halves of attack and defence.
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Belgium were never seriously troubled in Group B, their only points being dropped against Wales – twice – and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was the Welsh who inflicted their only defeat, having already held them to a goalless draw in Brussels, with Gareth Bale scoring the winner in the return. A 4-1 win in Andorra, coupled with Wales’ defeat in Bosnia, guaranteed them top spot on the penultimate matchday of a campaign in which they scored 24 goals, De Bruyne and Hazard jointly top-scoring with five apiece.