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World Cup 2014 Preview: Belgium

Everton stars past, present, and (maybe) future feature prominently on the roster of this World Cup hopeful.

Can Lukaku and Mirallas turn club success into glory for country?
Can Lukaku and Mirallas turn club success into glory for country?

The Belgians qualified with flying colors out of UEFA's Group A, winning 8 matches and drawing 2 in a group featuring Croatia, Serbia, and Scotland. So impressive was their qualification process, in which they only conceded four goals, that Belgium was ranked fifth in the world in October of 2013, their highest ever ranking.

Belgium made it out of the World Cup Group Stage five times between 1982 and 2002, with a fourth place finish in 1986, but failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2006 and 2010.

That hiatus will certainly be a talking point on this group as they head to Brazil, but what they lack in experience, they certainly make up for with spectacular young talent. Bayern Munich's Daniel Van Buyten is the team's only World Cup veteran, but also the only player on the 23 man roster over 30 years old.

The Red Devils were drawn into Group H with Algeria, Russia, and South Korea, one of the competition's least impressive groups on paper. One would certainly expect Marc Wilmots' side to be the favorite to win the group, given that Algeria barely squeezed past 58th ranked Burkina Faso to qualify, Russia has a tendency to disappear in major tournaments, and South Korea is ranked 53rd in the world.

The Belgians will likely line up in a 4-3-3 as follows.


Expected Starter: Thibaut Courtois

The Chelsea player just completed his third consecutive season on loan at Atletico Madrid, helping the club to a La Liga title, as well as coming mere seconds from a Champions League title. Though only 22 years old, Courtois has already established himself as one of the world's elite goalies, having been the rock upon which Europe's best defense this season was built. Belgium's goal will be well defended with Courtois in the lineup.

Should any ill befall Courtois, Liverpool keeper Simon Mignolet is an adequate fill-in.


Expected Starters: Toby Alderweireld, Thomas Vermaelen, Vincent Kompany (c), Jan Vertonghen

Kompany headlines a back-line made up of four true center-backs. Vertonghen will line up at left-back, where he is often found with Tottenham Hotspur. Alderweireld, an Atletico Madrid teammate of Courtois, will play right-back, though the 25 year old struggled to find regular first team action with the Spanish club.

Their defensive strength certainly lies in the middle with Kompany and Vermaelen, two Premier League veterans who have been playing together regularly since the opening of World Cup qualifying.


Potential Starters: Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne, Marouane Fellaini

Things are a little less clear in the midfield, but recent friendlies seem to indicate that Belgium will go with Fellaini and Witsel sitting deep in the midfield, with De Bruyne playing ahead of them, behind the striker.

Fellaini will be hoping that solid outings for country will help him put a dreadful club season behind him, while Witsel, who plies his trade for Zenit Saint Petersburg, may see the competition as an opportunity to advertise himself to Europe's bigger clubs.

De Bruyne, who moved from Chelsea to Wolfsburg of the Bundesliga in January, has enjoyed regular first team football since his move, picking up three goals and six assists in 16 league matches.

Moussa Dembele of Tottenham and Steven Defour of Porto will be top options off the bench.


Potential Starters: Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin Mirallas

Chelsea superstar Eden Hazard is the biggest name on the squad, and has the ability to take over any match at any given moment. Hazard's attitude has been perhaps his biggest problem as a player, with cracks in his relationship with his club manager Jose Mourinho appearing at the end of the Premier League season. The Red Devils will hope that the star can turn that into a positive in the World Cup, proving his worth to both Mourinho and other potential suitors.

Lukaku, as Evertonians know well, will also be looking to send a message to Jose Mourinho and any other club considering pursuing his services. With Christian Benteke out injured for the duration of the tournament, Lukaku will undoubtedly be the go-to guy at striker. Belgium will need him to score goals if they want to make a deep run.

Either Mirallas or Napoli's Dries Mertens will likely occupy the wing opposite Hazard. Mirallas, who ran hot and cold at times for Everton this season, has nine goals in 43 appearances for the Red Devils. One might expect Marc Wilmots to take advantage of the familiarity between Mirallas and Lukaku as well.

What can be expected of Belgium?

Anything less than winning their group will be a disappointment and possibly put the Belgians behind the 8-ball. The winner of Group H will be matched up with the runner-up of Group G, likely Portugal or the United States (fingers crossed!), while the runner-up of Group H will get the winner of Group G, which will likely be European powerhouse Germany.

If the Red Devils can win their group and beat Portugal/USA/Ghana in the round of 16, they'll find themselves in the quarterfinals. It is hard to speculate who they would end up matched up against at that point, but there are no easy teams in the quarterfinals of the World Cup.

Belgium does have the talent to beat the world's elite teams though, if they play at the top of their game.

This team will score goals. Mirallas has a history of scoring for country, Lukaku has been knocking them in left and right in recent friendlies, and Hazard is simply a remarkable talent.

This team also will not concede many goals. Courtois is a tremendous young goalkeeper looking for an opportunity to pry the starting goalie job from Petr Cech at Chelsea. The backline, though lacking pace, has developed chemistry and has loads of experience.

The question mark comes in the midfield. Will Fellaini, who spend more time this season on the physio's table and bench than the pitch, Witsel, who plays club football in Russia, and De Bruyne, still just 22 years old, be able to win and keep the ball enough to allow the forwards to score and take some pressure off the defenders?

If they can, this is a team with a legitimate shot to win a World Cup. If they cannot, Belgium will struggle once they reach the knockout round.