Part 3 of our World Cup preview series looks at one of the strongest teams making the trip to Latin America: Belgium. They are also well represented by the Premier League, with 11 players from the league (second in overall totals only to England). Seen by many as dark horses to go all the way, and with good reason, let’s take a look at the players from the Premier League who can make the most impact this summer.
Belgian defence has a distinct English flavour
Manchester City’s Captain Fantastic Vincent Kompany teams up with the London based duo of Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen to make Belgium one of the stingiest defence’s going into the World Cup. Man-mountain Kompany has enjoyed a stellar campaign with the Sky Blues, and his early season absence through injury was clearly felt as City struggled defensively when he was out. At City, he attempted twice the number of tackles compared to his nearest compatriot (65 vs 32) in a comparable time frame, and although he has a lower accuracy, he’s also saved his side 3 times this season with a Last Man Tackle. He’s also scored four times from set pieces, including City’s final goal of the campaign, and his ability to carry the ball out defence was instrumental in getting attacks started quickly on the break.
Thibaut Courtois, who was on loan with the La Liga Champions from Chelsea, will provide more than adequate cover behind the back four. With an amazing 20 clean sheets this season (Prem League highest Chelsea managed 18), he has sometimes single-handedly kept Atletico in games this season; he even had a hand in knocking his parent club out the Champions League with a string of fine saves. A great performance here can see him state his case to be Chelsea’s No 1 next season, so expect opposing strikers to have a tough time finding their way past the 6-foot-5 stopper this summer.
Chelsea to spearhead Red Devil’s attack
Jose Mourinho will be closely following the progress of Marc Wilmot’s men throughout the campaign, keeping tabs on PFA Young Player Eden “doesn’t sacrifice himself’ Hazard and Everton’s loan of the season Romelu “we’ll use Torres instead” Lukaku. The latter had a stellar season with Everton, and with 15 goals he is the sixth highest scorer in the League; he’s also younger than everyone ahead of him at only 21. He’s a quick thinker, skilful with the ball, a huge aerial presence in the box and as we can see in his comparison with Giroud (who has 16 for the season), he is a clinical finisher of attacking moves. He put away more Clear Cut Chances (60%) at a higher accuracy (63%) then Giroud (35% to 43% respectively) and has a higher mins/shot-on-target rate (57 to 81) even after spending a part of the season out injured (he’s only played 2562 mins, Giroud has 3092).
Providing the opportunities behind will be Eden Hazard, himself coming off an excellent campaign. He tops the Creativity charts with the joint-highest chances created with Nasri at 92. His shooting accuracy (59%) and Total Shots taken (72) eclipse those of his Chelsea teammates; he is also by far the most attacking player in a usual Mourinho defensive set-up with attacking output measured by Accurate Forward Zone Passes(1055) and Successful Final 3rd passes(740) comfortably beating the next best in that regard, Oscar. However, Belgium’s lack of width across the back four (both the full-backs are natural CBs) may force him to take the ball out to the wider areas more often than with Chelsea, which could possibly lessen the impact he has on the game.
Watch out for: Thibaut Courtois. Someone we’ll be seeing a lot more of in future seasons, Courtois’ stellar campaign with Athletico Madrid will give him some momentum going into Brazil 2014.
Possible weak link: Lack of width. With four natural CBs playing across the back line, and a winger who prefers cutting in to taking the ball out wide (Hazard), the Red Devil’s may make it easy for opposition defenders to stay solid and compact. Marc Wilmot’s use of Kevin Mirallas, one of their few true wingers, will be essential.
Chance to redeem himself: Maroune Fellaini. After what can only be described as a train wreck of a season for the midfielder, he can really state his case to future boss Van Gaal at Brazil with a strong performance. He usually performs for the national side however, and his partnership with Axel Witsel can be a fantastic one if all goes well.
Likely Starting XI: Courtois/Alderweireld-Kompany-Vertonghen-Vermaelen/Witsel-Fellaini/Mirallas-De Bruyne-Hazard/Lukaku
Predicted Finish: Semi-final. A strong, talented side Belgian side will beat a couple of big names on their way to a very respectable top four finish.