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Why they’ll win the World Cup: Belgium

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First of all, relax — This is part of a four-post series making the case for each of four World Cup semifinalists in their respective bids to win the 2018 edition of the tournament.

That said, let’s talk about why Belgium will be lifting the World Cup trophy on July 15 in Moscow.

[ RECAP: Belgium ousts Brazil ]

Why Belgium will win the tournament: First off, Roberto Martinez’s side can beat you in every way imaginable. Personel and tactically speaking, the Red Devils have options for wide open attacks, stingy bus-parking defenses, and any mix in between.

Assuming a way past France’s frighteningly similar side, Belgium could deploy any number of midfield combinations. Keep in mind that the Red Devils were able to handle Brazil without using Yannick Carrasco or Mousa Dembele.

Outshot 27-9, and that won’t happen often, Belgium managed with opportunistic plays. And if a team wants them to play out of the back, they won’t have any problem with Jan Vertonghen, Vincent Kompany, and Toby Alderweireld (though the trio has been far from at its best so far in Russia, that only bolsters the argument that Belgium has gotten this far without the in-form three-some). If they need to lump it up top and count on hold-up play, Romelu Lukaku is among the best at it. Michy Batshuayi isn’t bad at that part of the gig, either.

Belgium beat Brazil without using Carrasco, Dries Mertens, and Batshuayi. Each could be a part of a potent attack if the Red Devils go behind, as we saw against Japan. If the midfield needs to bust heads, there’s Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, and Youri Tielemans. If it’s about possession, Tielemans can help Kevin De Bruyne starve the opposition of its daily recommended amount of ball.

Frankly, Martinez may shut up a whole lot of Merseyside-based critics by the time he’s done in Russia.

De Bruyne: Belgium showing how “powerful” they can be

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The current Belgium squad — the one that reached the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup with a 2-1 victory over the mighty Brazil on Friday — is the end product of a golden generation that teased and tormented fans of their free-flowing style for years.

[ MORE: Belgium’s golden generation reaches World Cup semifinal ]

For so long, they were full of promise and potential, but lacked the maturity and/or experience in the big moments to get over the hump. But, now — four years after bowing out in the quarterfinals in Brazil, eight and 12 years after failing to qualify for back-to-back tournaments for the first time since the 1960s — the Red Devils, under carefree, bombastic manager Roberto Martinez, are delivering the goods.

After scoring the game-winning goal on Friday, Kevin De Bruyne spoke of the “power” possessed by this Belgian squad, of how they persevered against one of the most popular pre-tournament favorites, and of how they’re still two more wins from achieving what they set out to do — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s not easy to play Brazil, they are a wonderful team. But the power we have as a team showed today. We were magnificent in the first half.

“Second half it was very difficult, they had a lot of players in the middle. In the last 15 minutes it was a character test and we showed the world what we are capable of.”

“You have to grow as a player and as a team. Obviously it is difficult, in a tournament one loss and you are out but we tried everything. We are here to try and win the World Cup, obviously everyone tries. We are one win away from the game everyone wants to be in.”

As for Martinez, he believes it’s all about the mentality — something which has undoubtedly been fostered in so many of his players as they’ve risen to play for many of the biggest clubs in the world, and how they’ve applied those lessons to do what they’ve done thus far.

“They did it. You saw incredible heart from this team. You have to accept that Brazil have finesse and they will break you down but we did not accept it. This is something special. These boys deserve to be real special people back in Belgium.”

“I never lost a game on the tactics board, it’s the execution that matters and the execution was magnificent. Players have to be brave to change the way we play and we had two days to do it. That is down to desire, they wanted to make it happen.

“It is special. We can’t let them down back home now. We have beaten Brazil in the World Cup, we have created a nice memory, let’s treasure it and pass it down. Now we need more energy for the semifinal.”

Belgium goes to World Cup without Nainggolan

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BRUSSELS (AP) Belgium left midfielder Radja Nainggolan out of its World Cup squad despite a standout season with Champions League semifinalist Roma.

Belgium coach Roberto Martinez has long had a difficult relationship with the stormy midfielder. But after being called up for a warm-up game in March against Saudi Arabia, expectations had been that he would be on the 28-man roster announced Monday.

[ MORE: No World Cup for Chelsea trio ]

On top of the troubled relationship, Nainggolan was also the victim of the unparalleled wealth of talent the small nation has produced over the past few years.

Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku were all named in the squad, which will be cut to 23 before the World Cup.

Frustrated by Martinez’s tactics, De Bruyne calls out Belgium boss

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Based on his two-plus seasons of performances for club and country, Kevin De Bruyne has earned the right to publicly voice his and his teammates’ frustrations — the unofficial players’ spokesman, if you will.

[ MORE: Switzerland qualify for World Cup | Croatia join them ]

Thus, it would clearly behoove Belgium manager Roberto Martinez to have De Bruyne, Manchester City’s transcendent playmaker, firmly on his side a mere seven months before the 2018 World Cup. With that in mind, let’s check in on one of the trendier picks to triumph next summer, following Friday’s 3-3 friendly draw with Mexicoquotes from Goal.com:

“Mexico were just tactically better. Their system made our five defenders sit deep and we were swimming in midfield — it was five against seven.

“Look, we still put too much on our talents. As long as we don’t have a good tactical system, we will have difficulties against countries like Mexico. It’s a pity that we have not yet found a solution.

“Of course we play with a system that is in principle very defensive, but it is filled with many attacking players who want the ball.

“Then you have a bit of a problem, like against Mexico. It was a match in which we had very little possession and everyone in a system that doesn’t really fit. We now know that something must be changed against such teams.

“But, eventually. Martinez decides. I think the trainer has to find a solution so that we can avoid such situations as against Mexico in the future.”

Well, that’s not exactly ideal, but on the bright side, Martinez has proven tactically flexible extremely stubborn and rigid while manager of Everton and Wigan. There’s probably very little to validate De Bruyne’s gripes.

Fortunately for De Bruyne, Martinez and Co., the Red Devils breezed through their qualification group as one of Europe’s four unbeaten sides (alongside Germany, Spain and England), thus the current international break — along with those closer to the World Cup in March and May/June — are meant to be used for experimentation and fine-turning.

[ MORE: Southgate plans to put England through mock shootout before WC ]

Of course, said experimentation and fine-tuning must result in a handful of affirmative answers, otherwise you’ve really only managed to halt momentum and unbalance a side, which will inevitably prompt your star player to question your leadership in a public forum.

You stay you, Roberto.

Michy Batshuayi: “Everyone knows I have to play more”

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The striker who secured Chelsea’s Premier League title could be leaving the club after just one season.

Michy Batshuayi vented his frustration to the press after starting just once in the Premier League, though he did come off the bench 19 times and score five goals, including the game-winner to clinch the title against West Bromwich Albion.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

“No, no, no,” Batshuayi said regarding a question of whether he’d accept another season on the bench. “Everyone knows that I have to play more, that I have to score goals. There’s a World Cup coming up next year. I want to be ready for the World Cup.”

Batshuayi was signed for reportedly more than $42 million in July 2016 from Marseille but found himself second-choice behind Diego Costa in Antonio Conte‘s preferred starting XI. Batshuayi however added he wasn’t going to ask for a transfer.

“I’m not going to ask anything,” Batshuayi said. “I’m going to listen to what they are saying. They are the boss, not me. And afterwards I’ll discuss it with my agent and the club. Amicably, as friends of course.

“A loan? That’s not up to me. That’s up to them (Chelsea). They take the decisions, not me.”

Batshuayi’s future will remain up in the air until Diego Costa and Romelo Lukaku’s future’s get sorted out. If Costa does indeed make a move to China and Lukaku returns to Chelsea, Batshuayi could find himself in the same spot as last season, or he could be even further down the depth chart if Costa remains at the club and Lukaku joins as well.

With Batshuayi looking to earn a place in Roberto Martinez’s 23-man squad for the 2018 World Cup, he may have to move in order to get the minutes he needs to prove he’s worthy of a place on the roster. Batshuayi is still getting calls to the national team in the meantime, and scored in a 2-1 win over the Czech Republic on Monday.