(Reuters) – Belgium have their best chance to win their first major trophy, and underline a long-standing status as the top team in the FIFA rankings, when next month’s European Championship gets underway.
An impressive array of talented players, many at their peak, are available to coach Roberto Martinez as Belgium begin their Group B campaign and are expected to ease past Russia, Denmark and Finland to become the team to avoid in the knockout phase.
Few of the 24 teams in the tournament have as glittering a lineup as the Red Devils.
Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois are world stars while Romelu Lukaku’s impressive scoring form this season helped Inter Milan become Italian champions and extended his record as Belgium’s top marksman to 59 goals.
The rest of the team is populated with a mix of vast experience and exciting, emerging talent.
Captain Jan Vertonghen, 34, in defence has 126 caps, midfielder Axel Witsel 110 and Napoli forward Dries Mertens 96 while 24-year-old Youri Tielemans, who scored Leicester City’s FA Cup final winner, is cast as the team’s future talisman.
But despite his heroics at club level this term, Tielemans is not guaranteed to start for Belgium such is competition for places in a polished outfit that won all 10 games in their Euro 2020 qualifiers, scoring 40 goals – more than any other country.
There is also the extra motivation for the Belgians of making up for their bitter loss to France in the World Cup semi-finals three years ago when they felt they let a chance for glory slip. They ended the tournament in Russia in third place.
“It was one of the targets after the World Cup to grow, put together a deeper squad and allow ourselves to get more players in each position with a real competitive edge,” said Martinez.
He feels he has done so and the team are now better, but Martinez has warned that winning the Euros is far from certain.
“It’s a bit of a bizarre tournament because we as the top seeds in our group have no protection. It has never happened in the history of the Euros, or the World Cup for that matter, that we play against two home teams. Most strange.”
Belgium begin their campaign in St Petersburg against Russia on June 12, travel to Copenhagen to face Denmark on June 17 and return to the Russian city for their final group game against Finland on June 21.
But if Martinez needs something to worry about, it will be on the playing front where De Bruyne has been given extra time to rest after the Champions League final with Manchester City playing Chelsea on May 29.
Axel Witsel has been included in the 26-man squad in a gamble on his fitness after Achilles surgery and Hazard needs to recover his form after an injury-ridden season at Real Madrid.
(Writing by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Ken Ferris)