Canada, Croatia, Morocco, and Belgium

Romelu Lukaku (left) and Roberto Martinez

Romelu Lukaku (left) and Roberto Martinez
Photo: Getty Images

“BELGIUM’S LAST CHANCE!” You have heard or seen this before. These are the great European wastes of the last decade. There hasn’t been a greater collection of talent than Belgium have sported in the last four majors, and a 3rd place finish in Russia is all they’ve had to show for it. Either that’s where the last round is going well, or the pressure of previous failures makes everything crack.

Belgium have been the hipster choice to win the World Cup or Euros since around 2014, ever since Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard started tearing the Premier League apart at the seams, Romelu Lukaku started delivering on his promise, Thibault Courtois is can -having become the best goalkeeper in the world, and an absurd amount of talent distributed among the best clubs in Europe. And they never lived up to it. They kicked it off in the quarter-finals against Argentina in 2014, somehow got knocked out of Euro 2016 by Wales, couldn’t beat France in Russia, then found a wall italian on their way to summer 2021. You could argue, if you were so inclined that with this group of obscenely talented players, they’ve only beaten one true heavyweight in four tournaments, and that was Brazil in quarters of 2018. And they were extremely lucky to do so (Brazil took 27 hits and ran to a 2.8-0.5 xG count in that game). Quite simply, the Red Devils did not live up to the bill.

Some (like me) would point the finger at manager Roberto Martinez, who has always used his ease and availability with the media to mask the fact that he may have no idea what he’s doing. He is part of a parade of managers who have made Everton a mess, although that may be intrinsic to this club. He kind of parlayed that into Belgium’s work, where even with the unique collection of attacking talent, Belgium never looked so dynamic or cohesive.

Part of Belgium’s problem is that Martinez insists on a 3-4-2-1 formation, which doesn’t always get the best out of De Bruyne, but maximizes the plethora of players who can play in winger positions. The other problem is that Martinez has his favorites and rarely strays from them. Although one of them is Eden Hazard, who hasn’t played regularly for Real Madrid for three seasons and just isn’t the guy he used to be. Leandro Trossard or Charles de Ketelaere would happily take the place against De Bruyne behind Lukaku or Michy Batshuayi, and yet Hazard continues to find himself in the starting XI. almost certainly past its expiration date.

The problem Martinez is going to have to solve this time around is how to get further into the tournament than Belgium ever had, the only acceptable result, with a defense that is three days older than water. He will still be anchored by Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld (combined age: Statler and Waldorf). Based on their recent Nations League outings, it looks like 19-year-old Zeno Debast will join them in the bottom three. That’s certainly one way to go about it, but Belgium doesn’t have many other options. In many places they have great starters but not too many options off the bench.

Martinez has never been too preoccupied with defense, always believing he can overcome his defensive shortcomings, which seems like the only way for this Belgian side with such an old defense. What they can do. The firepower at the back is the envy of most, with Yannick Carrasco, Trossard, Thomas Meunier, Timothy Castagne and Thorgan Hazard all able to fill the role. And all of them basically want to play as a forward while playing at the back. That’s why Belgium can do big numbers like they did in the past, like putting up three against Russia at the Euros or eight combined against Panama and Tunisia at the last World Cup, or come back strong against Japan like they did. also in this tournament.

But it’s always taken off when it’s time to dance with the big boys. Brazil, France, Portugal and Italy did not find it so difficult to neutralize the attack. In those four games, all in the round of 16 of the last two tournaments, Belgium have racked up just 2.9 xG combined, including 1.8 against Italy in 2021. Pin the wingers back, and suddenly they are blunt. Canada’s wingers must be licking their chops.

Still, Belgium have been ‘in the corner’ for a while now and would only need a few rebounds to find themselves in the semi-finals or even the final. If they win the group, they will have a very imperfect Group E opponent, be it Germany, Spain, Mexico or Japan. Get through that and it could be Portugal or Uruguay or Serbia or Switzerland or Cameroon, unless something wacky happens with Brazil in the group stage. If they don’t win the group, Brazil are much more likely to wait in the quarters.

Still, it would be a question of how Martinez is going to balance his fucking torpedo tactics with a defense that ages by the second, if anyone thought Martinez was going to care. It would be great if a swashbuckling team stormed the trophy, but that rarely, if ever, happens. And it will be an interesting study to see how they deal with Canada’s raging wingers on the counter, let alone Portugal or Germany.

They won’t be the only ones worried about getting old in certain places, because Croatia always bring wise old heads like Luka Modrić, Ivan Perišić and Dejan Lovren. If momentum is a thing (it isn’t), then Croatia will have it in this tournament, as their last four Nations League games have seen them go 3-0-1 against Denmark at twice, France and Austria.

While the defense may need a few touch-ups, the midfield is made up of Modric, Mateo Kovačić and Marcelo Brozović. Mario Pašilić is a starter stuck in the top three, but the other two spots up front have been juggled through a host of options. There is simply no attacker who takes his chance with both hands.

But whatever problems you perceive for Croatia – a lack of certainty or questions over defense – no team is coming together quite the way Croatia seem to.

We would all like to think that Canada are just here to party, because the last thing anyone needs is to have distracted Leafs fans for even a few weeks, but this group could have arranged for the Hosers to have another surprise in store as they do. did in qualifying. The world doesn’t need to know more about Alphonso Davies at the counter, but in combination with Tajon Buchanan and Jonathan David in the middle, they could easily scare a defense that’s exposed and aging like Belgium and wobbly like Croatia. Or Cyle Larin, their top scorer in qualifying, can come and team up with David with Davies behind them, a look they sported in a friendly against Uruguay in September. How far Canada can go will likely depend on how well their midfield duo of Stephen Estáquio and Samuel Piette/Richie Lareya handle the solid midfielders they will see in the group stage. If they can’t provide a launching pad for the Canadian forwards, they’ll be home before the postcards. If they hold their own, there’s enough pace and spirit in this team to deliver some eyebrow-raising results. We know they will be tactically comfortable in the games against Belgium and Croatia, as those two teams are likely to have more ball, and Canada has already kicked around Mexico and the United States without him and knocked against. The sight of either of these teams trying to chase Canada when they come off on a counter will cause laughter

Morocco, just in time, I realized that having his best players is probably a good idea for a World Cup. So they canned the manager who pushed Hakim Ziyech to leave the national team, hired Walid Regragrui, who immediately welcomed Ziyech back. Which means Ziyech is back to combine with Achraf Hakimi on the right side, with Ziyech tucking in and leaving all the space for Hakimi to let off steam. Morocco would find plenty of teams willing to swap full-backs with them, with Hakimi on the right and Munich’s Noussair Mazraoui on the other side (although his natural side is also on the right but he has to). Sofyan Amrabat is a very good anchor in midfield, and Sofiane Boufal, on the other side of Ziyech, has the potential to actually be quite a sexy part of the attack. They won’t be a breeze in this group.

Manager most likely to get a red card

The Croatian Zlatko Dalić, just to be so beautiful.

Best jerseys

I’m always a fan of Croatia’s checkerboard look, but this time it’s their away jerseys who are really boss.


Wednesday November 23 – Morocco vs Croatia (5am EST), Belgium vs Canada (2pm EST)

Sunday November 27 – Belgium vs Morocco (8am EST), Croatia vs Canada (11am EST)

Thursday, December 1 – Belgium vs. Croatia, Canada vs. Morocco (10am EST)

Leave a Comment