|Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois
Belo Horizonte: With a star-studded squad that makes a mockery of the old joke — ‘Who can name a famous Belgian?’ — a young and talented Belgium should breeze past Algeria in the Group H opener, at the Estadio Mineirao, on Tuesday.
Maligned as a non-entity in the past, the Belgian team at present is certainly one to look out for — Thibaut Courtois under the bar, Vincent Kompany marshalling the back with Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku terrorising defences.
Easy qualification and a pool of thrilling young talent that is the envy of Europe have made the Red Devils bookmakers’ pre-tournament fifth favourites behind heavyweights Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Germany.
Yet, it is their first World Cup since 2002, meaning the team lacked experience at the big stage. And they have some frailties, such as erratic finishing and absence of flying fullbacks.
The sole survivor from their 2002 campaign is veteran defender Daniel van Buyten, who said there were some feisty tackles flying in during the team’s training sessions in the build-up to their opening match.
“We usually train lightly before important matches so that players hit their peak at the right time,” said the Bayern Munich player. “But the duels on the training pitch have become more full-blooded.
“Every player should be ready. There are only 11 starting places and everybody wants to be in the line-up. The substitutes, too, must be ready at any moment to make the difference,” he stressed.
Algeria, on the other hand, come into the tournament looking underrated and are probably happy as all the pre-match hype is on their rivals. “We’ve had the best preparations possible,” said their quietly confident Franco-Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic.
The first target for the “Desert Foxes” is to improve on their humiliation at the previous World Cup when they failed to score a goal and finished rock bottom.
“We are also the only Arab team in the competition and we want to absolutely make sure we represent the country well and make them proud of us,” he added.
Going back to Belgium, Lukaku is relishing the pressure that comes with the tournament. “I love pressure, I embrace it. If you are scared of pressure, you cannot play well then. We have a lot of quality in the team and year after year, we’ve been getting stronger.
“A lot of us are now playing for top European clubs. So, there’s no problem at all,” the forward pointed out. Captain Vincent Kompany, however, reminded the Belgians need to ensure their defence is tightened as no team can be underestimated in a tournament of such magnitude.
“As a defender, you see so many goals scored in this World Cup and defenders are a bit more aware of it at this moment. Our quality is organisation and as long as we stay organised, we usually defend well. And if we defend well as a team, we will be okay,” said the 28-year-old.
Kompany has spent a decade with the national team and will play his first World Cup match on Tuesday. “I have been extremely lucky in my career and as a child, I always wanted to lift a trophy. So why not a World Cup then?”