While most nations will enter the 2022 Qatar World Cup dreaming of glory, few will be as hopeful or expectant as Roberto Martinez’s Belgium side.
After all, Belgium have been blessed with a so-called ‘Golden Generation’ over the course of the last decade, with players such as Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and the talismanic Kevin De Bruyne contributing to a wider group of players who have been tipped to end the Red Devils major trophy duck.
Despite these players being set to compete in the Middle East and the fact that Belgium finished third in the 2018 World Cup, however, the Red Devils are just seventh favourites and 11/1 to lift the Jules Rimet trophy this year. So, while this may be a tempting wager if you want to maximise your Betcoin welcome offer, it suggests that Belgium’s golden generation may be losing some of its sheen.
But is this the case, and does the Qatar World Cup offer the last chance for Belgium’s current crop of players to fulfil their potential?
Belgium’s Recent Form – Are They on the Decline?
Belgium have twice reached the World Cup semi-finals in 1986 and 2018, losing narrowly to the eventual winners (Argentina and France) on both occasions.
Since Samuel Umtiti’s header knocked Belgium out of the 2018 World Cup, the Red Devils have been beaten 2-1 in a high quality European Championship quarter-final against Italy in the summer of 2021.
The Italians also beat Belgium in the third place play-off of last season’s Nations League, after the Red Devils were downed 3-2 by France in the semis (despite leading 2-0 at one point through first-half goals from Yannick Carrasco and Lukaku).
There’s already a theme developing here, with Belgium regularly progressing deep into tournaments before failing to impose their quality or will on similarly talented opposition. To this end, the side have played four games against members of the world’s top 10 since beating Portugal in the last 16 of Euro 2020 (including the two contests against Italy), losing every single one of them.
This run has also included a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Louis Van Gaal’s Netherlands side in June, with the Dutch comprehensively outplaying the Red Devils and condemning them to their heaviest home defeat in 14 years.
Experience and Pedigree – But a Pronounced Lack of Form
When you also throw in recent and uninspiring draws against Wales and the Republic of Ireland, it appears as though Belgium are declining rather than building towards a crescendo as the 2022 World Cup approaches.
The playing squad itself is also developing issues, as despite the emergence of talented youngsters like Loïs Openda, Jeremy Doku and Charles De Ketelaere, Belgium remain overly reliant on ageing stars like Axel Witsel (33), Toby Alderweireld (33) and Jan Vertonghen (35).
What’s more, the team’s most talented forward players have also experienced fluctuating form and fitness levels in recent times.
Since an initial €100 million move to Real Madrid in 2019, for example, 31-year-old Eden Hazard has scored just six goals in 66 appearances and experienced a raft of injuries alongside more general fitness issues.
Then there’s striker Romelu Lukaku, who despite scoring an impressive 68 goals in 102 international appearances, endured a torrid 2021/22 season following his return to Chelsea.
In fact, he scored just 15 goals in 44 appearances at Stamford Bridge following a £97.5 million move from Internazionale, before completing a £5 million loan move back to the San Siro for the upcoming campaign.
These issues are compounding Belgium’s issues as the World Cup approaches, even allowing for the undoubted brilliance of Manchester City playmaker Kevin De Bruyne (who remains at the very top of his game).
The Last Word
Manager Roberto Martinez will still feel that his charges can mount one last assault on a major tournament win, particularly if he can implement a philosophy that gets the most out of his ageing squad and individuals like Hazard and Lukaku.
However, despite winning more games than any other Belgian national team coach, Martinez remains stuck in his tactical ways, with his favoured 3-4-3 formation and underlying lack of defensive organisation (which was also prevalent during his time at Wigan and Everton) arguably becoming increasingly problematic over time.
Worryingly, Belgium’s players are no longer displaying the individual brilliance to help overcome these potential shortcomings, with a system of three-at-the-back increasingly susceptible to a high press and counter attacks in wide areas.
Of course, Belgium retained enough experience and quality to go deep in the World Cup and potentially win the tournament. However, time will tell whether this is the golden generation’s last chance to win a major honour or simply confirmation that the current crop of players is past its best.