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UEFA Euro 2016 Preview: Belgium

Romelu Lukaku and the Red Devils are serious title contenders in a wide open UEFA European Championship field.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The Belgian national team has been in the ascendancy perhaps more than any European team in the last three years, and surely must be looking at UEFA Euro 2016 as a chance to complete their move into the international footballing elite.

The Red Devils made the quarterfinals at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, but were underwhelming in just about every match they played at the tournament. Marc Wilmots' men needed two late goals to best Algeria, an 88th minute winner to top Russia, and a late Jan Vertonghen winner to beat 10-man South Korea in the group stage. Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku had to tally in added time to beat a resilient Tim Howard in the Round of 16 before going out to Argentina in the quarterfinals.

With the team's budding superstars two years more mature and the heart of the team largely the same, an improved outcome is a must for the Red Devils.

The Squad

Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Jean-Francois Gillet (Mechelen)

Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Spurs), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), Jan Vertonghen (Spurs), Jason Denayer (Galatasaray), Thomas Meunier (Club Brugge), Christian Kabasele (Genk), Jordan Lukaku (Oostende), Laurent Ciman (Montreal Impact)

Midfielders: Radja Nainggolan (Roma), Axel Witsel (Zenit Saint Petersberg), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Mousa Dembele (Spurs)

Forwards: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Romelu Lukaku (Everton), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid), Dries Mertens (Napoli), Divock Origi (Liverpool), Christian Benteke (Liverpool), Michy Batshuati (Marseille)

Belgium has top-level talent at nearly every position. Courtois is a top-five goalkeeper in the world, not that he'll likely see much action with defenders like Alderweireld, Vermaelen, and Vertonghen in front of him. However, perhaps the only criticism that can be seriously levied against this team is its lack of impact players at full-back.

In the midfield, Marc Wilmots will probably look to Nainggolan and Witsel to control the center of the pitch. Both players are capable in all three thirds and currently ply their trade at top clubs across Europe.

Players such as De Bruyne, Hazard, Carrasco, and Mertens are listed as forwards, but will most likely play either out wide or in behind the main striker, likely Lukaku. The Everton striker struggled in the last few months of the club season, but he's had no such recent struggles for his country. The 23-year-old has scored in each of his last four appearances for Belgium.

If Lukaku struggles, having Origi and Benteke as backups is an attractive alternative.

Projected Lineup: Courtois; J. Lukaku, Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Denayer; Witsel, Nainggolan; Hazard, De Bruyne, Mertens; Lukaku

Their Group

The Red Devils are in Group E with Italy, Ireland, and Sweden, none of whom should particularly scare Belgium.

The Italians have brought their worst squad to a major tournament in recent memory, the Irish did well to simply qualify for the tournament at all, and the Swedes lack significant talent past that of their talisman, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Anything short of three victories in the group stage would be a disappointment.

Expectations

Winning the group would only be the first step for Belgium, who will likely consider anything short of a semi-final appearance a disappointment. Unfortunately for the Red Devils, if they and Germany each win their group and make it out of the Round of 16, they will meet in the quarterfinals. A win in the quarterfinals could very likely see Belgium meet France in the semis.

In all likelihood then, Belgium will have to beat perhaps the tournament's two major favorites, Germany and France, just to advance to the final.

The team's defense should be strong, with the Spurs pair of Vertonghen and Alderweireld renewing their partnership. The midfield should be well-controlled with two elite box-to-box midfielders at the heart of the team. Goals should flow with Lukaku coming off a career-best season and a host of dangerous attacking midfielders.

Clearly then, the team has the talent, but will it have the necessary steel? Missing captain Vincent Kompany due to injury will be a major blow, and Belgium fans certainly will not have forgotten the way the team failed to show up for much of the 2014 World Cup.

Belgium should be an elite team that contends for the European title at the Euros this summer. But can they finally live up to their potential?