Stubborn Algeria can delay Belgium progress.
Belgium rarely enter a major tournament with high expectations but this year is different. It’s widely believed that this is the best Belgian squad since the so-called Golden Generation finished second in the European Championships in 1980 and reached the World Cup semi-finals in Mexico in 1986.
The spine of Marc Wilmots’ team is imposing in ability and stature. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has just helped Atletico Madrid to the La Liga title and the Champions League final, captain Vincent Kompany led Manchester City to the Premier League crown and striker Romelu Lukaku had a terrific season loan at Everton, though you do wonder why successive Chelsea managers haven’t been keen on having him around Stamford Bridge.
Eden Hazard, Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen are other big names who ply their trade in the Premier League, indeed only England have more players in their squad from the top flight than Belgium so many fans will have them as their second team.
The Red Devils were one of seven European nations to qualify without losing a game and could hardly have been more impressive, winning eight out of 10 matches. They also kept six clean sheets but will miss the presence of the injured Christian Benteke in Brazil as they rarely score the goals that their excellent approach play deserves.
A lack of tournament experience among their squad is also a worry and first opponents Algeria have been in good form of late, winning their last three matches.
Vahid Halihodzic’s side only just managed to qualify for the finals and are very reliant on Islam Slimani and Hilal El Arbi Soudani up front.
But it was a goal from former Rangers and Sheffield Wednesday defender Madjid Bougherra which finally saw them on the plane to Brazil. He was also a key member of their squad when they conceded just two goals in South Africa four years ago, though their lack of goals saw them slip out at the group stage.
They’ve never reached the final 16 and the odds look stacked against them again.
There will be some long faces if Belgium don’t make a winning start but they may have to be patient to break down the Algerians, who will probably crowd the midfield and defend their penalty area. The Draw/ Belgium on the HT/FT is 13/5 and the Europeans are 11/5 to win by exactly one goal.
The match kicks off at 5pm UK time on Tuesday June 17th at the Estadio Mineirao, Belo Horizonte.