Euro 2016 Preview - Belgium: Red Devils bidding for first ever major tournament triumph

Belgium's golden generation have catapulted them to a first European Championships in 16 years, but can Marc Wilmots help inspire such a talented crop of players to their first ever triumph at a major tournament?

Euro 2016 Preview - Belgium: Red Devils bidding for first ever major tournament triumph
Photo | VAVEL

Belgium will hope to cash in on their golden generation of stars at Euro 2016 as they bid for their first ever major tournament triumph in France this summer.

Ranked as one of the favourites to win, despite the fact that this is their first involvement at a European Championships since 2000, the Red Devils boast one of the most supremely talented squads, even considering injuries, of the 24 teams involved.

Behind only Argentina in the FIFA World Rankings, Marc Wilmots' squad are the best Belgium has boasted for over 30 years, when they finished as runners-up to West Germany in Euro 1980 before coming fourth in the 1986 World Cup.

Since coming second that year, they have competed in just two of the eight editions of the tournament and have only managed to reach the group stages on both of those occasions.

Hopes are therefore high for such a star-studded squad this time around, albeit one that only finished two points ahead of Wales in qualifying and still requires some polishing in order to perform to its potential.

They'll undoubtedly need their best players to produce if they are to reach the latter stages of the competition. That is the biggest task that faces Wilmots, who must ensure his side gels well and becomes the sum of its parts if they are to enjoy a maiden success this summer.

If they can do that, then there's no denying that Belgium will be one of the tournament's most dangerous teams. In fact, now is as good a chance as ever to write themselves into the history books.

How they qualified 

In a group containing Wales and Bosnia & Herzegovina as their toughest opponents, it was no surprise that Belgium finished top - even if by just a two-point cushion.

Wilmots' side stumbled initially, winning just one of their first three matches as they drew to both Wales and Bosnia, but they soon found strong form to ensure they secured their spot in France.

Belgium inarguably possess one of Euro 2016's most talented 23-man squads. (Picture: Getty Images)
Belgium inarguably possess one of Euro 2016's most talented 23-man squads. (Picture: Getty Images)

A 5-0 win over Cyprus, in addition to a 6-0 win over Andorra in their first game, allowed them to get back on track as they won six of their remaining seven matches to finish in first on 23 points, conceding just five goals across 10 games. 

Despite maintaining such a strong defensive record and also scoring 24 goals, Belgium will be disappointed that they were unable to beat Wales in two attempts. A 1-0 loss to Chris Coleman's side in Cardiff, courtesy of Gareth Bale's sole strike, followed up a 0-0 draw in Brussels - having been expected to sweep the Welsh aside by many.

But they responded to the setback of the Wales defeat in ideal fashion as their star-studded squad strolled to qualification with four straight wins to reach their first European Championships in 16 years.

Recent form

With just one more warm-up friendly to play before they begin preparing for the tournament proper, Belgium's recent record is relatively strong bar two minor blips.

Their defeat to Wales in qualifying aside, Belgium have lost just one other of their 15 matches in all competitions since their elimination from the World Cup in Brazil two years ago.

That other defeat came to Portugal in March this year as goals from Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo gave their fellow Euro qualifiers a 2-1 victory in a friendly. 

Of their build-up friendlies to Euro 2016, Belgium overcame Switzerland 2-1 thanks to goals from Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne before requiring an 89th-minute Lukaku equaliser to draw 1-1 with Finland on Wednesday. They still have Norway to play in their final friendly on June 5.

Manager: Marc Wilmots

Wilmots is a hugely popular figure in Belgium for his work with the national team. (Picture: Getty Images)
Wilmots is a hugely popular figure in Belgium for his work with the national team. (Picture: Getty Images)

A popular figure in his homeland, Wilmots has been involved in the Belgium national team set-up since 2009, first serving as assistant manager under Dick Advocaat and then Georges Leekens.

The 47-year-old, who was an attacking midfielder in his playing days and most notably featured for Standard Liège and Schalke, took the reins after Leekens' exit in May 2012 and after initially taking charge on an interim basis, soon became the permanent manager.

Wilmots scored 28 goals in 70 caps for his country and went to four World Cups as a player, and in just his first campaign as his country's manager, guided them to a first World Cup in 12 years when they qualified for Brazil.

There, they won all three of their group games against Algeria, Russia and South Korea to reach the Round of 16 where they edged past a resilient United States side after extra time. But in the quarter-finals, they were undone by eventual runners-up Argentina due to Gonzalo Higuain's eighth-minute strike. 

Though they only reached the last eight, Belgium became the first ever country without a major trophy to sit on top of the World Rankings in 2015 and their qualifying record, taking 23 of 30 points in Euro 2016 qualifying after 26 of a possible 30 in 2014 World Cup qualifying, is among the best under Wilmots.

As such, he was recognised as the Best Coach of the Year by Globe Soccer Awards in 2015 - having previously been commended as Belgian Coach of the Year in both 2013 and 2014. 

His record, 30 wins from 43 games as of June 1, stands him as the most successful ever Belgium manager to have taken charge of more than one match - losing just six matches across four years.

The question remains to be seen as to whether Wilmots can get this golden generation of Belgian players to deliver on the big stage, but boasting some of the best talents from the Premier League and Europe's other top leagues, Wilmots has all the tools at his disposal to construct a tilt for the title. 

Renowned for his work in bringing youth through the ranks to the senior squad, there are few better than the current manager to lead Belgium into a new age and the fact they are considered such strong contenders this summer is a testament to their progress under his stewardship.

And he'll be aware that the only way to really consolidate their development is with a successful campaign in France, something that isn't exactly out of the question. 

Strengths and weaknesses

To put it simply, Belgium's biggest strength is the incredible amount of quality they boast throughout the squad - particularly in the final third. 

They have the ability to field a number of different systems but a 4-2-3-1 seems most likely, allowing Wilmots to field De Bruyne centrally, Eden Hazard and Mertens on either wing behind Lukaku leading the line.

The highest ranked European national team for a reason, Belgium have a strong spine throughout the side - with tough-tackling midfielders Axel Witsel and Moussa Dembélé​ and the energetic Radja Nainggolan among Wilmots' options.

Furthermore, in central defence, they're equally as strong. They may lack Manchester City's Kompany, but as well as Tottenham Hotspur duo Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, Wilmots has regularly hailed Jason Denayer - whose future looks bright - as the obvious successor to Kompany.

One particularly weak area of their squad, however, is at full-back - where they can find themselves bereft of options. In recent years, with skipper Kompany the mainstay of their defence, centre-backs such as Alderweireld and Vertonghen have often been shunted out wide.

In some of their friendlies, defensive midfielder Witsel was even deployed at right-back. This leaves their side without much attacking width, with all of the Red Devils' forwards bar Carrasco having a tendency to cut inside the pitch rather than stay out wide. 

Jordan Lukaku, brother of striker Romelu, is one of the potential solutions on the left - while Thomas Meunier or Laurent Ciman could also play on the right of defence. 

However, it's likely that Wilmots will stick with natural centre-backs on either side - which leaves them somewhat vulnerable, although they'll hope to maintain their defensive record from qualifying through to the tournament proper. 

Key player: Kevin De Bruyne

De Bruyne will look to continue his excellent club form into this summer's tournament. (Picture: Getty Images)
De Bruyne will look to continue his excellent club form into this summer's tournament. (Picture: Getty Images)

Belgium's team is brimming with overwhelming individual quality, making it a difficult ask to pick out just one key player but of the available candidates: Kevin De Bruyne is arguably the stand-out.

With seven goals and nine assists in 25 Premier League appearances in his first season for Manchester City, De Bruyne put an unsuccessful stay at Chelsea in the past as he comprehensively quashed any doubts about his ability to play in England.

His last 12 months followed a season in which he was named Football of the Year in Germany, leading to a £55 million move to City which would have seen lesser footballers crumble under the pressure. The 24-year-old did exactly the opposite, as the numbers suggest. He could even have had more goals and assists if not for a two-month spell out injured.

His form and ability to cope under such expectation, Wilmots and co. will hope, bodes well for Belgium this summer - with De Bruyne the chief creative outlet tasked with providing for Hazard, Lukaku and Dries Mertens amongst others.

With 13 goals in 40 games - four of which came in qualifying for this tournament - De Bruyne is already well aware of what it takes to do it on the international stage. Based off his recent form, it might be Belgium's No.7 who decides how far they get. 

Wildcard: Yannick Ferreira Carrasco

Carrasco has made just four appearances for Belgium prior to this summer. (Picture: Getty Images)
Carrasco has made just four appearances for Belgium prior to this summer. (Picture: Getty Images)

One of the most impressive performers on the pitch in the Champions League final last week, 22-year-old Carrasco is hardly an unknown - but with just four caps to date, he's an unknown quantity on the international stage.

Signed for £14.3 million from Monaco last summer, Carrasco has enjoyed a fine first season at Atletico Madrid. Scoring five goals in 43 appearances, including a 79th-minute equaliser against Real Madrid in the final in Milan, he has steadily become an important player for Diego Simeone's side.

Though Atleti lost out on penalties after matching their fierce rivals across 120 hard-fought minutes, Carrasco emerged with his reputation significantly enhanced after coming off the bench to rejuvenate his teammates and turn the game in their favour.

But with Belgium's quality in attack, including Hazard as captain, De Bruyne, Mertens, Lukaku and more - Carrasco could have to settle for a place in the reserves early on in the tournament, obviously depending on the formations used.

However, if he takes his opportunities, there's every chance he could further harness his reputation as one of Europe's brightest young attacking talents. 

Full 23-man squad

Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Jean-François Gillet (Mechelen from Catania), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool).

Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), Jason Denayer (Manchester City), Jordan Lukaku (Oostende), Thomas Meunier (Club Brugges), Laurent Ciman (Montreal Impact), Christian Kabasele (Genk).

Midfielders: Mousa Dembele (Tottenham), Radja Nainggolan (Roma), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Axel Witsel (Zenit St Petersburg), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Dries Mertens (Napoli), Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid).

Forwards: Romelu Lukaku (Everton), Christian Benteke (Liverpool), Divock Origi (Liverpool), Michy Batshuayi (Marseille).

Group E opponents

Belgium are joined by Italy, Republic of Ireland and Sweden in Group E - arguably this year's 'Group of Death'.

The latter teams both required the play-offs to reach this year's tournament, but have plenty of quality throughout their sides, such as Robbie Keane and Zlatan Ibrahimović, and could prove banana skins if Belgium are not at their best. 

One-time European Championship winners Italy, who have also won the World Cup four times, are the toughest opponents in the group although notable absentees such as Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio could harm their chances of success. Meanwhile, the Belgians will be buoyed by their 3-1 victory over the same opponents back in November in a friendly.

Overall, Belgium will fancy their chances to reach the knockout stages - although they cannot afford to be below-par at any point if they are to do so. 


Monday 13th June: Belgium - Italy - 20:00 - Stade de Lyon, Lyon. 

Saturday 18th June: Belgium - Republic of Ireland - 14:00 - Stade de Bordeaux, Bordeaux.

Wednesday 22nd June: Sweden - Belgium - 20:00 - Stade de Nice, Nice.