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Jun 1, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: Belgium

Belgium will go into the 2014 FIFA World Cup as a dark horse to win it all with their solid back line and young attacking options.

Group H | Algeria | Russia | South Korea


Team DNA

After years of being tipped as dark horses, Belgium are finally achieving. Manager Marc Wilmots deserves a big portion of the credit, having stepped up from an assistant after Georges Leekens' departure.

- 32 Teams in 32 Days: Country-by-country previews

- Grantland.com: The rise of the Red Devils

Leekens often struggled to understand some of Belgium's talented youngsters; he seemed to have little idea how to get the best out of Eden Hazard, for example, and notoriously fell out of favour with the midfielder. Wilmots has seemed to connect better with the younger generation. The fact he has a Twitter account is indicative of that difference from his predecessor.

The confidence of the squad's young players gives Belgium considerable verve, with Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Kevin Mirallas all blessed with pace and comfortable interchanging positions. Behind them, the growing experience of Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen has given them real stability too.

Starting scenario

History

Belgium return to the World Cup for the first time since 2002, and this will be their 12th appearance in the tournament. Their best showing was 1986, when they finished fourth overall.

How they reached Brazil

Belgium qualified for the World Cup with impressive style, winning eight and drawing two of their 10 qualifying matches to finish nine points clear of an experienced Croatia. Their scratchy start seems light years ago, when they grinded out a 2-0 win at Wales in September 2012 before needing a Guillaume Gillet equaliser to save a draw against Croatia in Brussels.

The turning point came the following month, when De Bruyne inspired an eye-catching 3-0 win against Serbia in Belgrade. From there, Belgium charged clear at the top of the group with goals coming from a variety of sources. A brace by Romelu Lukaku, who will replace the injured Christian Benteke in Brazil, on a difficult pitch in Zagreb in October confirmed Belgium would finish above Croatia. Wilmots' side conceded just four goals in the qualifying campaign.

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles

Putting one over their neighbours from Netherlands would be nice. The Dutch have been eulogised for their production of players among European nations, but Belgium must believe they have a superior quality generation compared to the current Netherlands crop.

Beating England, where so many of the squad play their club football, would be a source of some mirth when those players go back to their day jobs and begin preparing for the new season.

A victory over Germany would also be welcomed given that Joachim Loew's side delayed Belgium's chance of a return to a major tournament by two years when beating them 3-0 in the final qualifier for Euro 2012.

Most important player

There are plenty of big names on Wilmots' squad, with Thibaut Courtois, Hazard and Kompany all renowned worldwide. Yet fans probably see a lot less of Belgium's key player, Axel Witsel, particularly since he joined Zenit St Petersburg in September 2012.

Some have argued that the rangy midfielder has gotten lost in the Russian Premier League and his form at the start of this season was way below the level he exhibited in his spectacular single season at Benfica. But Witsel is looking far more like his old self since Andre Villas-Boas arrived as manager at Zenit in March.

This is crucial for Belgium. Witsel sits at the base of their midfield, shielding the back four and mapping out the way they play with his strength, power and (most importantly) excellent technique and range of passing to set the tempo and feed Belgium's flair players.

Definition of success

Given that so many of Belgium's biggest stars play outside their homeland, fans all over the world are expecting the national team to not miss a beat in Brazil. Many are expecting Belgium to reach the quarterfinals, and some even believe they could win the tournament. In short, Les Diables Rouges are in the unusual position of facing more expectations from the wider world than from within their country.

- Video: Belgium odds in World Cup (Australia only)

On raw talent alone, Belgium should win their pool against Russia, Algeria and South Korea. Yet the fact that they have spent so long without qualifying means expecting anything is a dangerous game. It is true that Marouane Fellaini, Jan Vertonghen and others have tournament experience together at the Olympics, but that is nowhere near the same level as the World Cup, so there is an experience vortex.

All of Belgium's group opponents have the edge on them in this sense, having each participated in the last World Cup. One senses that the Russians, in particular, have rebuilt the fractures in morale from a demoralising Euros in 2012 since Fabio Capello took over as manager. None of Belgium's three adversaries is a pushover, so negotiating that first step should be treated as the main immediate objective.

How far will Belgium go?

The round of 16, where they will probably lose to Portugal.

ESPN FC analysts' take: Michael Ballack

Belgium are interesting. They have a powerful base in back and an attack with experience playing for big clubs in Europe. They were a mild surprise going undefeated in qualifying, but now they enter the World Cup as some people's dark horse. It will be a test for them to handle even that little pressure.

This is a really young team -- just one player is over age 29 among the usual starting XI -- and that can make things unpredictable. These players don't have many older role models to look up to. It's difficult to be a young player when you look to the left and the right and don't see any bigger leaders. They realize the team is relying solely on them, and that makes it hard to handle the pressure.

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