World Cup preview

2014 World Cup Team Preview: Belgium

Leave a comment

Getting to know…Belgium
The mention of Belgium often doesn’t start the heart thumping and the fingers trembling. Usually, you’re more likely to start thinking about chocolate. Fries. Waffles. Mussels.

Ok, now I’m hungry.

But we’re talking about the World Cup here, and yes, teams should fear Belgium. Not based on their history: the furthest they’ve made it in a World Cup was fourth, back in 1986. In 2002, they were knocked out in the Round of 16, and celebrated by failing to qualify for the next two World Cups and three European Championships.

Don’t underestimate Belgium, though. The majority of their players may not have experience in the biggest games on the brightest stages, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have the ability to scare their opponents. The midfield is packed with talent: Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, and Kevin Mirallas are just a few of the names that could start. Thibaut Courtois is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. And forward Romelu Lukaku may be just 21 years old, but he’s already had plenty of experience terrorizing defenses.

Record in qualifying
Undefeated in UEFA Group G. And that group wasn’t exactly a cakewalk, either. Both Croatia, who wound up finishing second, and Serbia, who finished third, felt they had a good shot at the World Cup finals. Wales and Scotland both put up more of a fight than many had expected.

Belgium clinched qualification in their penultimate game, beating Croatia 2-1 to send them into a playoff with Iceland. The victory allowed the Belgians to cruise a bit in their final match, drawing 1-1 with Wales.

A look at Group H
Belgium shouldn’t have much of a problem getting out of their group. Their recent performances meant they were seeded, and they’ve been drawn with Russia, South Korea and Algeria. South Korea could cause a few problems for Belgium’s attack, as they’re a strong unit who plays together very well. Russia, under Fabio Capello, will be able to adapt their strategy depending on their opponents, but they’re unlikely to move past the group stages. Algeria are the weak link in the group – a solid enough side, but one that hasn’t run up against much top-class competition.

Game schedule

Thursday, June 17 at 12 noon ET: Belgium vs. Algeria (Estádio Mineirão, Belo Horizonte)

Sunday, June 220 at 12 noon ET: Belgium vs. Russia (Estádio do Maracaña, Rio de Janeiro)

Thursday, June 26 at 4 p.m. ET: South Korea vs. Belgium (Arena Corinthians, São Paulol)

Star player
Eden Hazard. Sure, he got into a little spat with manager José Mourinho that left to Hazard being left on the bench for some (must-win) Chelsea games, but who hasn’t fought with Mou at one time or another? Hazard, the PFA Young Player of the Year, is the most talented of an immensely talented crop of young Belgian players. He’ll zip through the midfield, trickster his way around the defenders or simply execute a perfect pass that will have your jaw dropping.

Manager
Marc Wilmots, originally an assistant manager for the national team, took charge of Belgium in May 2012. He obviously guided this talented bunch of players through what could well have been a difficult qualifying process, but his biggest challenge lies ahead: how to make the right selections for the major games he’s facing. Without Christian Benteke, who ruptured his Achilles and is unavailable for the World Cup, Lukaku is a lock up top. But who plays behind? No matter which three attackers Wilmots chooses for his 4-2-3-1, some highly gifted players will remain on the bench – like Dries Mertens, who scored 11 goals for Napoli this season. If Belgium fail to go as far as many are predicting, Wilmots could find himself on the unemployment line.

Secret weapon
Is it fair to say Romelu Lukaku? After all, it’s hard to keep a 6’3″ striker seemingly made of pure muscle a secret. Especially since he made his first appearance in the Premier League nearly four years ago. The 21-year-old scored 16 goals on loan at Everton this last season, and has scored six in 28 appearances for Belgium.

Now, the pressure’s on for the young forward. While Belgium can certainly score from midfield, he’s still going to be the one looked to to knock in the goals. If he’s able to keep cool in Brazil, he’ll take his country far.

Prediction
Fourth place, losing to France in the match the runners-up are forced to play to determine who’s really the third best in the world. Not too shabby for a team that’s missed out on qualifying for five consecutive major international tournaments.

2014 World Cup team preview: Italy

2 Comments

Getting to know…Italy
Gli azzurri are aiming to put a fifth star on their country’s crest. Italy have won the World Cup four times. They lifted the trophy the first time they entered (and hosted) the competition, and took it again the next time around. Then there was a wait of nearly forty years before Italy won again, this time in Spain. Their most recent win came in 2006, when the azzurri beat France in a penalty shootout. 

Italy didn’t do so hot in the last World Cup. Drawn into a group with Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand, they looked to be a lock to move on to the next round. Instead, they drew two and finished out by losing to Slovakia, finishing bottom of the group. The azzurri went on to redeem themselves at Euro 2012, however, where they wound up second only to Spain.

If you’re curious as to why Italy are the blues, when their tricolore flag is red, white, and green, it’s all down to royalty. That shade of azure blue comes from one of the royal houses that played a role in unifying Italy. The blue was then adopted in the seal of the Italian presidency, and is traditionally worn by Italian national teams.

Now, if that question comes up in a World Cup pub quiz, you’re all set.

Record in qualifying
Undefeated in ten, Italy took top in UEFA Group B.

But there are a few points to qualify here. First, Italy found themselves challenged by teams such as Armenia and Bulgaria – they’ll be running up against much stiffer competition in Brazil.

Second, nine of Italy’s 19 goals were scored by players not going to the World Cup. Dani Osvaldo, Alessandro Florenzi, and Mattia Destro were not selected, while Riccardo Montolivo was a last minute scratch due to injury. Cesare Prandelli is more about the system than the talents of the individuals, but this still may be cause for concern.

A look at Group D
Italy found themselves in a dangerous group, but not one that’s unbeatable.

Costa Rica are almost certain to go out, especially with two of their best players injured. The real struggle will be among Italy, Uruguay and England. Uruguay head to the tournament with a rather aged squad, but if Luis Suárez is fit, they’re almost certain to get through to the next round. Then again, England are likely prepared to sit back and close down an opponent, keeping a solid defense to ensure they progress.

In other words, this could very well be one of the groups in which advancement is determined by goal difference. Which could make things very exciting indeed.

Game schedule

Saturday, June 14 at 6 p.m. ET: England vs. Italy (Arena Amazonia, Manaus)

Friday, June 20 at 12 noon ET: Italy vs. Costa Rica (Arena Pernambuco, Recife)

Tuesday, June 24 at 12 noon ET: Italy vs. Uruguay (Estadio das Dunas, Natal)

Star player

Hands down, it’s Mario Balotelli. He lifted Italy to near-dizzying heights in the last European Championship, and if he’s on form, he’ll be the one pulling them through to the later stages.

Notice we’re talking “star” quality, here. If you’re looking for the key to Italy’s play, that lies with Andrea Pirlo. When the midfield maestro is at his silky-smooth best, Italy ticks along beautiful. But if the opposition man-marks Pirlo out of a game, the azzurri start to struggle.

But Balotelli is a star. He’s a star in the way he plays – he’s capable of getting himself into dangerous positions, where he’ll either produce a sublime finish in the tiniest amount of space, or, yes, win his side a penalty. The drama definitely follows wherever Balotelli goes. He’ll appeal to the referee, he’ll sulk if taken out of the game, he may even set off fireworks in his hotel room. But it’s worth it to watch him score goals.

Manager
Cesare Prandelli was brought on from Fiorentina in the summer of 2010, but unfortunately for the azzurri, he didn’t actually take the reins until after their dreadful World Cup. He then reworked the side, guiding them to the final in Euro 2012.

Prandelli is an interesting character, emphasizing coherence in the squad almost above all else. Players that violate his Code of Ethics will find themselves on the sidelines. He certainly plays favorites with the Italian players, but it can’t be denied that he knows what he’s doing. His Italy side plays a patient game with a rather slow build up – but don’t go calling them defensive. Let’s leave that old stereotype aside, shall we? They’re respectable enough at the back, but it’s the midfield play that makes them shine.

Secret weapon
Gianluigi Buffon. This will be the 36-year-old’s fourth World Cup, and his fourth as the starting goalkeeper for Italy. His time in South Africa was cut short, however, when he left at halftime in the first group stage game. Injury kept him out of the remaining matches – and we know how Italy fared.

Instead, the captain will want to replicate his performance at the 2006 tournament, when he let in just two goals, keeping five clean sheets. Known as “San Gigi”, it’s Buffon that will rescue Italy if the defense falls apart. While prone to occasional gaffs, he’s still one of the top goalkeepers in the world, and he’ll likely pull off at least one heroic save to prove it.

Prediction
Apparently people don’t like it when I joke about friendlies carrying great predictive value. But, while Italy have a strong squad, they’re not flashy, and they’re unlikely to make it past the quarterfinals. If they finish top of the group, they’ll most likely emerge from the Round of 16 to face Spain, where they’ll be outplayed as they were two years ago. If they finish second, I’m tipping Colombia to be the ones that send them home.