Football

Belgium set to continue upward trajectory

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Without wanting to sound patronising to an entire nation, it is fair to say that Belgium is more regarded as a manufacturer of high-class chocolate and premium lager, rather than as a country steeped in footballing history.

Yet, a transition is beginning to occur whereby Belgium's finest export is becoming not cocoa and hop based products, but homegrown exponents of the beautiful game.

In Eden Hazard, Belgium can boast the most exiting young footballer in Europe at this present time, proven by the willingness of the Premier League's elite to fall over themselves in the hope of acquiring him from Lille.

Both Manchester City and Manchester United had strived desperately to secure the signature of the 21-year-old forward, but it is Chelsea who will complete a £32.2 million deal for him.

Hazard will join international teammates Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois at Stamford Bridge, and Chelsea will be the one of the main beneficiaries of Belgium's Golden Generation over the next few seasons.

Having the core of an international side at Chelsea will also serve to benefit a nation already destined to climb the football ladder, and could have a similar effect to that of Barcelona nucleus in Spain's all-conquering squad.

Although only Lukaku has actually made an appearance for Chelsea - 12 games in his first season - English fans will have the opportunity to cast an envious eye over the Blues' Belgian ranks, and the rest, when they face Roy Hodgson's side at Wembley on Saturday.

The two nations are separated by 37 places in the FIFA world rankings yet, if the format were based on potential alone, Belgium would realistically be placed higher than their weekend opponents.

In fact, on the balance of the two squads set to compete at football's most famous of grounds, Belgium could claim to be in better shape than England currently, even if the world rankings tell a different story.

In Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen, manager Marc Wilmots has at his disposal three of the most highly-regarded central defenders in European football, and perhaps only Gary Cahill can claim to be as dynamic among England's number.

Wilmots has a defensive unit the envy of most managers and, with Kompany, Vermaelen and Vertonghen still in their mid-20s, they will provide the backbone as Belgium continue their upwards trajectory.

Belgium's midfield, too, is one littered with industrious and experienced, and still relatively young, players including Premier League pair Marouane Fellaini and Moussa Dembele.

The former has made his name at Everton and had been linked with a move to Arsenal last summer, while Fulham's Dembele is reportedly being courted by the Premier League's elite.

Throw into the mix Benfica's Axel Witsel and Steven Defour of Porto, both of whom have attracted reported interest from Manchester United in the past, and it is a midfield packed with both thrust and craft, two attributes England appear to be lacking.

In Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker, England have two excellent central midfielders, but there is the sense they could be easily outpassed by more daring opposition, and Belgium have the potential to take advantage.

England's best chance will be to attack Belgium down the flanks as the latter fail to possess too much width of international repute, although over-zealous advancement can allow the likes of Hazard and De Bruyne to make hay on the counter.

For all their hype, however, Wilmots has, so far, been unable to extract the very best out of a side ready to explode on the international stage.

They were beaten to Euro 2012 qualification, and a playoff spot, by Germany and Turkey respectively, and current rankings would suggest they have little chance of making the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

But there is a strong sense that England could become one of the first notable scalps of Belgium's Golden Generation and, as the latter's players begin to raise their profile in Europe, Hodgson's side will certainly not be the last.

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