Despite their failure to qualify for both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, Belgium were tipped by so many as the dark horses for this summer’s edition that they could easily be described as one of the most heavily-backed teams in Brazil.
And looking at the quality available to head coach Marc Wilmots, Belgium fully deserved their dangerous floaters tag.
Centre-back Vincent Kompany is widely regarded as one of the best defenders in the world, Eden Hazard is one of the undisputed stars of the Premier League and players such as Romelu Lukaku and Adnan Januzaj are among the brightest young talents around in the game. Throw in seasoned professionals like Dries Mertens, Marouane Fellaini and Daniel Van Buyten and you have a serious contender.
Yet regardless of all their individual class, the Red Devils never really got going in Brazil.
A comeback win over Algeria was followed up by a hard-fought late victory over Russia, before they put South Korea to the sword in a game that effectively meant little as they had already booked their ticket for the knockout stages.
Wilmots’ men then showed what they are capable of in the round of 16 clash with USA as they created numerous chances and impressed with their free-flowing attacking football, even if they needed extra-time to see off the Americans following Tim Howard’s goalkeeping masterclass.
Yet when they were really tested for the first time in the quarter-finals against Argentina, Belgium came up short.
Alejandro Sabella’s men dominated from the start and it took them only eight minutes to beat Thibaut Courtois.
The fact that it was Gonzalo Higuain who broke the deadlock will only have been more painful for the Belgians.The Napoli man had failed to impress in the opening three weeks of the tournament and many had called for Sabella to drop the striker. Higuain kept on doing what he does best, however, and silenced his critics with a predatory finish from just inside the area.
Higuain continued to cause the Belgian defence all kinds of trouble throughout the game and came close to doubling his personal tally when he hit the crossbar, before he was eventually replaced by Fernando Gago.
Belgium, meanwhile, never really recovered from the former Real Madrid man’s opener. Hazard once more flattered to deceive as he created next to nothing and Kevin De Bruyne was unable to bail out his former Chelsea team-mate this time around. The Wolfsburg man put in a virtuoso performance against USA, but was unable to deliver the goods once more.
With their two main creative outlets both kept silent, Belgium never really looked like getting back in the game. Only when they started playing long balls for Lukaku and Fellaini in the final 20 minutes did they occasionally look dangerous, but to no avail.
Belgium’s golden generation can travel back home with a feeling of pride, however, after winning four out of five games and reaching the quarter-finals for the first time since 1986.
Saturday’s match at the Mane Garrincha showed that they still have room for improvement, but this is not the end for this group of players. There’s a European Championship coming up in France in two years’ time, before the 2018 World Cup will be played in Russia. Expect Belgium to be ready for them.