BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Brimming with talent and buoyed up by a quarter-final place at the 2014 World Cup, Belgium will be a popular choice as an outside bet at the European Championship but need key players to be on form after they lost captain Vincent Kompany to injury.
The Red Devils return to the tournament for the first time since co-hosting the event with the Netherlands in 2000 but an exciting generation of talent will be no demure debutants, having already had a taste of the big time in Brazil two years ago.
Their performance in reaching the quarter-finals -– they exited after a 1-0 loss to Argentina –- plus a convincing qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 led to a five-month stint at the head of the FIFA world rankings.
Belgium would be the first to scoff at the idea that they are the world’s best team but they are strong in all departments. Coach Marc Wilmots has an abundance of talent, led by Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel, Thibault Courtois and the mercurial Eden Hazard, who is set to become the new captain after a groin injury sidelined Kompany.
Belgium will need Hazard to emerge from the funk that has characterised his club season with Chelsea and show more than just the occasional moment of magic if they are to emerge from the opening-round group they share with Italy, Ireland and Sweden.
If Hazard is on song, and working well in tandem with De Bruyne, then Belgium will have two much-feared players, capable of dictating the outcome of most matches.
There is a large contingent of English-based players in the Belgian squad who will need to be fresh after a long and taxing club season which has seen many of their players battle injury.
Wilmots has sought to keep his side under the radar and away from the spotlight the traditional favourites will attract.
Only days ago he proclaimed his side were nowhere near favourites. “We hope to do as well as we did at the World Cup and maybe a little better. A place in the last four would be fantastic,” he told Belgian media.
“France, Germany and Spain are the favourites for me.”
There will be many who disagree and see Belgium as a top team at the tournament. The country has once reached the tournament final, losing to a late West Germany goal in 1980 in Italy.
Reporting by Mark Gleeson