If you walked up to me two years ago and told me that Belgium had a chance to challenge for the 2014 World Cup, I would have asked one of two things: which Belgian town are you from & do you watch any football whatsoever?
We're talking about a team that failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in a relatively easy group, finishing fourth above Estonia and Armenia, respectively. Euro 2012 proved to be the same, with a young team failing to qualify for the group stages.
This is a team that was always decent in their defensive third, but struggled to create any offense on the other end of the pitch. It was a team without a real starting goalkeeper, in Euro 2012 splitting time between an older journeyman in Logan Bailly and a budding, untested Simon Mignolet.
But more importantly, it was a team that lacked a game-changer, a player that was willing to put his body on the line to produce a Herculean match-winning effort.
To say that two years ago this side would have the talent and ability to compete for anything more than group-stage football was blasphemous.
Then how is it that the team on everyone's mind is this incredibly young and promising Belgian side? The new "Golden Age" has come again for Belgium, their last such period coming in 1980, finishing as runners-up in the UEFA European Championship.
The difference this time? They've finally managed to fill every imaginable aforementioned hole in their starting XI.
Let's start with Eden Hazard. The Chelsea winger has proven time and time again this Premier League season that he is one of the world's brightest talents at just 23-years-of-age. He's a player capable of changing the game by himself, whether that be a threatening outward run towards the goal line for a cross or a 20-yard strike, Hazard has quickly become Belgium and Chelsea's go-to man.
The amount of depth at the midfield position is what will fuel Belgium forward, and may just be their biggest strength. Any team that can field Hazard, Axel Witsel, Kevin Mirallas, Marouane Fellaini, Kevin De Bruyne, Nacer Chadli, and Moussa Dembele (all play for top European clubs), is going to have a real shot at success.
As for the lack of creativity up top, let's look to Belgium's two young strikers: 20-year-old Romelu Lukaku on loan at Everton, and 23-year-old Christian Benteke for Aston Villa.
Both forwards have scored more than ten goals already this Premier League season despite battling nagging injuries (Lukaku has 11 goals, Benteke 10). In the world's most physical league, these two stand above the rest, able to protect and finish the ball amongst Premier League center-backs. The only headache these two cause manager Marc Wilmots is who he should start on match-day.
At the back, captain Vincent Kompany is becoming arguably the best center-back in Europe for Manchester City. Besides Tottenham's Vertonghen, they form one of the best central pairings in the competition, a duo any keeper would pray for.
Everyone has been hearing about Thibaut Courtois and his impressive stint on-loan with Atletico Madrid. At just 21-years-old, the Chelsea loanee has proven himself to be one of Europe's top keepers, keeping Atletico at the top of the La Liga table and helping them to the Champions League quarterfinals.
And if he were to lapse in form for some reason (age, attitude) or go down due to injury, Wilmots can stick Liverpool's Mignolet between the posts without a drop in confidence.
I've read all of these articles labeling the Red Devils as a "dark-horse" and hear my peers calling them an "under-dog" or their "surprise team of the tournament". That's fine, I get it.
But they just dominated their World Cup qualifying group, winning the group outright with 26 points, nine points higher than second-place Croatia.
In Brazil, they are competing in a relatively simple Group H against Russia, Algeria, and South Korea; a group where they're the only top ten FIFA ranking squad (tenth).
So taking into account the players and talent that Wilmots and his staff have at their disposal, and the path to success that they have to overcome, it seems to me like the Belgian national team is more of a "bright-horse" heading into Brazil this summer.
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