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Early Argentina, Dutch survive

Five Aside Jul 5, 2014
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 By Kevin Palmer
Jun 10, 2014

Dembele dreaming of Belgian glory

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.

The relentless rise of Belgian football has been one of the more compelling narratives ahead of their appearance in this summer's World Cup, but Mousa Dembele believes his nation's recent improvement is the result of little more than chance.

"The reason you can say we have so many good players all at once in my view is simple -- it is just coincidence," said Dembele, the Tottenham midfielder who should start in midfield as Belgium take on Algeria in Belo Horizonte in their opener on Tuesday.

"It is a very nice coincidence and one we have to take advantage of, but for a small country like Belgium to have so many great players in the same era is unusual. To look for the reasons behind it, I don't know."

Belgium have achieved very little on the world football stage since they made it through to the semifinals of the 1986 World Cup, only to be blown away by Argentina's Diego Maradona in his pomp, but Dembele's optimism for success is evident as he assesses the team's chances in their first major international tournament in 12 years.

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According to teammate Mousa Dembele, Romelu Lukaku, right, could become a big star at this year's World Cup.

"I'm so happy that all the Belgium players are doing so well," he said. "It gives us confidence to do well in the national team for the next few years. So many Belgian players are playing well at top clubs in England and all over Europe and this has given us confidence that we can do something special at this World Cup.

"You can see the difference in the country now. Everyone is excited and they can see how much this team has progressed. There is hope we can do well at the World Cup and it is good to see.

"It also means expectations are higher. Everyone watches the Premier League and sees our players doing well. Then they say we can do well at the World Cup and that is possible. Greece showed [at Euro 2004] that the favourites do not always win. But this is still the World Cup and the competition will be big."

A glance at the World Cup squad named by Belgium coach Marc Wilmots -- which oozes class from every position -- confirms that Belgium are primed to go a long way in the competition. Chelsea keeper Thibaut Courtois will back up a defensive line that includes Manchester City's Vincent Kompany and Tottenham's Jan Vertonghen. A midfield led by Chelsea's Eden Hazard and a strike-force given potency by Chelsea's regularly-loaned striker Romelu Lukaku is impressive indeed.

Throw the likes of Adnan Januzaj (Manchester United), Axel Witsel (Zenit Saint Petersburg), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal) and Kevin Mirallas (Everton) into the mix and you quickly see that the hype around this Belgian team is not misplaced.

Adding a finishing touch to the Belgian promise will be vital if they are to realise their potential, and Dembele believes they have the ideal candidate to emerge as a contender for the World Cup's Golden Boot in powerhouse striker Lukaku.

"I have known Lukaku since before he was a football player," Dembele said. "I knew him when he was eight or nine and he was already a big lad then. We are from the same city and he is the cousin of my best friend, so we go back for many years now.

"In the last few years, we have got to know each other in the national team and we can all see what a great player he is. I am not surprised that he is doing so well and I think everyone in Belgium knows what he can do."

Lukaku, who arrived at Chelsea from Anderlecht in 2011, has impressed in loan spells with West Bromwich Albion and Everton over the course of the last two seasons and Dembele is hoping his long-standing friend, who is looking to shake off an ankle injury, will shine in Brazil.

"It's not easy to go to Chelsea and try to find a place in a team with so many star players. He is capable of doing well there and he has shown that he is an unbelievably good player with the other Premier League clubs. He is an unbelievably strong player and that is his best asset.

"It is not for me to decide whether he is the player Chelsea needs, but all I know he is a very good player and I'm happy that he plays for my national team. Hopefully he shows that at the World Cup."

As one of the top seeds in Brazil, Belgium benefited from a draw that gives them real hope of progressing to the latter stages of the competition. With Algeria, Russia and South Korea lying in wait in Group H, Dembele is eager to confirm he belongs on the biggest stage of them all against the world's best.

"I would like to score more goals and I still feel that in every aspect of my game that can improve," added Dembele, who started his career playing as a forward before Martin Jol converted him into an attacking midfielder during his time at Fulham.

"I always have confidence in myself, but the good thing is we have a lot of competition in the team and that keeps the level high. It is this way for me at Tottenham and Belgium. It means everyone has to be sharp."

Belgium has rarely been hailed as a hotbed for producing world superstars, but this country's image might be transformed by their golden generation of footballers over the next month.