May 29, 2013, 7:00 AM EDT
Don’t be fooled by Belgium’s larger lack of marquee status in world soccer. The team is seriously on the rise and, in a word, stacked.
The roster reads like a who’s who of European up-and-comers. When attached to a couple of older hands, like commanding Manchester City center back Vincent Kompany, you see why Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. national team has its mitts full tonight in Cleveland.
A crowd of about 25,000 will watch as a U.S. team slightly diminished by absences due to injury and ongoing club commitments kicks off at 8 p.m. ET at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.
It’s just a friendly for the Americans, a way to polish and fine-tine for the far more important World Cup qualifiers ahead. So it’s low-pressure stuff in that regard. Still, no one wants to finish on the wrong end of a beating – and all the questioning that comes with it – and the Belgians have a sequined assembly certainly capable of delivering one.
Chelsea attacker Eden Hazard has returned to Europe due to injury, but the Belgians do have Spurs midfielder Moussa Dembélé, Everton’s Marouane Fellaini (pictured, left) and Zenit St. Petersburg tough performer Axel Witsel in midfield, a formidable match for a U.S. team missing its most important man in the middle, Michael Bradley.
Striker Romelu Lukaku is sure to test a young U.S. back line; he’s soaring with confidence after recording a a hat-trick for West Brom on the final day of the English Premier League season in that wild 5-5 draw with Manchester United. Lukaku, 20, spent the season on loan from Chelsea, and may soon join Champions League runner-up Dortmund on loan for the coming campaign.
If Lukaku isn’t tormenting the U.S. rear guard, then it could be Christian Benteke, who meant so much to Aston Villa’s spring dash to stave off relegation. Benteke may also soon be on the move.
Joining Kompany in the back for Belgium is versatile Spurs man Jan Vertonghen and Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen.
Manager Marc Wilmots, who captained Belgium’s last World Cup team, back in 2002, even has great options in goal. There he has Thibaut Courtois, a Chelsea man who just spent a successful season on loan at Spain’s Atletico Madrid, or first-choice Sunderland ‘keeper Simon Mignolet from which to choose.
Roll them all together – we didn’t even mention Everton’s Kevin Mirallas or Porto’s Steven Defour or, well, we could go on … – and it really is an impressive bunch. This piece at ESPN FC notes how all the pieces piled up turned Belgium into a virtual version of world soccer’s third most expensive team. That’s based on transfer fees that reached $226 million last summer.
Speaking of transfer fees, expect to hear a lot this summer about Fellaini; the Everton man and his explosion of dark hair are expected to be among July’s top transfer targets.
Can this team be as good as the highly capable Belgian teams of the 80s, when the land finished third in a World Cup (1986)? “We are quite technically strong, but also there is a lot of strength and power in the team,” Fellaini said in this piece, which attempts to dissect the recent rush of talent emerging from a relatively small land of 11 million.
That’s about the size of Ohio, population-wise. So, that’s not bad at all for the country now ranked 15th by FIFA – if you put any weight in those things. (If you do, the United States is ranked 33rd.)
(More on the United States and how Jurgen Klinsmann’s team might look later today at ProSoccerTalk)
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