WORLD CUP: Belgium has exceptional talent but so many doubts
BRUSSELS (AP) — With a wealth of attacking options, Belgium should be a potent force going forward at the World Cup.
They might need to be, because with injury and fitness clouds over key defenders, the team could be vulnerable at the back.
Just two days before Martinez named his final squad, center back Vincent Kompany injured his groin in a 0-0 draw with Portugal, raising fears he could miss his second consecutive major tournament after a leg injury sidelined him for the 2016 European Championship in France.
Martinez is giving him until the eve of Belgium’s Group G opener, against Panama on Monday, to prove his fitness.
The 32-year-old Manchester City captain is not the only defensive worry for the Red Devils. Toby Alderweireld at Tottenham, Thomas Meunier at Paris Saint-Germain and Thomas Vermaelen at Barcelona have all spent parts of the season warming the bench at club level.
Up front it’s a different story. Romelu Lukaku leads the attack, supported by the creative genius of Eden Hazard and with Kevin De Bruyne pulling the strings in midfield.
But for all the exceptional talent, Belgium keeps underwhelming at major tournaments, only reaching the quarterfinals at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016.
Martinez is hoping that Kompany’s injury worries will be a galvanizing force that could help propel FIFA’s third-ranked team deeper in Russia.
Here’s a closer look at the Belgium team:
It took a loss to Wales at the 2016 European Championship for Belgium to oust underachieving coach Marc Wilmots and turn to Martinez, a Spanish coach with Premier League experience.
Martinez led Belgium to the top of its qualifying group with an unbeaten record. But it’s unclear how a coach who spent most of his time with teams like Wigan, Swansea and Everton will fare at a World Cup.
At least he has already won a trophy, taking unheralded Wigan to the FA Cup title by beating Manchester City in 2013.
Having Thibaut Courtois in goal has made Belgium the envy of world football.
Then came the night in March at Barcelona when Lionel Messi beat Courtois twice with shots through the legs to open up the Chelsea goalkeeper to international ridicule for the first time. Courtois will need to banish any self-doubt in Russia.
When it comes to doubt, there is plenty of uncertainty about backup Simon Mignolet, who has been banished to the bench at Liverpool.
Previously known for its dour defensive prowess, Belgium added flair with Kompany, Alderweireld, Meunier and Jan Vertonghen.
Going into the World Cup, though, only Vertonghen, who just became the first Belgian to win 100 international appearances, inspires confidence and gets all the playing time he wants at Tottenham.
Every time the 32-year-old Kompany takes the field for Belgium, onlookers fear he could go down with another injury. That’s exactly what happened in a June 2 friendly against Portugal, casting his participation into doubt and prompting Martinez to name Los Angeles FC defender Laurent Ciman as a reserve.
This department is where Belgium’s genius resides, with De Bruyne and Hazard dazzling with sparkling moves and piercing passes. Even if their synergy on the field has not been perfect, Martinez has been getting close enough.
As if Hazard and De Bruyne don’t provide enough midfield flair, Martinez also is taking Adnan Januzaj, hoping his ability to beat defenders will carve out more chances for the strikers.
Radja Nainggolan, whose skillful doggedness helped take Roma past Barcelona in the Champions League, did not make the squad, an omission that angered many Belgium fans.
The 24-year-old Lukaku is already Belgium’s all-time leading scorer with 33 goals.
All hope is invested in Lukaku staying fit and in form for the World Cup after an impressive first season leading the Manchester United attack, with De Bruyne and Hazard in support.
Martinez can also turn to Dries Mertens, the deft, diminutive winger-striker who was instrumental in Napoli’s pursuit of the Serie A title.
Michy Batshuayi was just hitting form with Dortmund when he injured his ankle in early April, but has won his race for fitness and will be going to Russia as Lukaku’s understudy.
After opening in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Monday against Panama, the second Group G game is close to its Moscow base against Tunisia on June 23. The group concludes on June 28 against England in Kaliningrad.
Goalkeepers: Koen Casteels (Wolfsburg), Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool)
Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Dedryck Boyata (Celtic), Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona)
Midfielders: Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang), Nacer Chadli (West Bromwich Albion), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Mousa Dembele (Tottenham), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Adnan Januzaj (Real Sociedad), Thomas Meunier (Paris Saint-Germain), Youri Tielemans (Monaco), Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian)
Forwards: Michy Batshuayi (Borussia Dortmund), Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United), Dries Mertens (Napoli)
More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup