Experiment & gamble
Tonight Italy entertain Belgium in a friendly which acts as a warm-up for Euro 2016 next year in la douce France. The stakes won’t be high but it’s a very good test for both to see which who has a realistic shot at a semi-final or even final next year. Formations, players, tactics, subs,… It’s the ideal timing for coaches to gamble, experiment and focus on the remaining weak points.
Belgium’s coach, former Schalke striker Marc Wilmots, has been the boss since Summer 2012. And it’s no coincidence Belgium’s rise started back in 2012, after they won the derby against Netherlands 2-4. From that moment on there was hope again, after they failed to qualify for (takes a breath) Euro 2004, World Cup 2006 in Germany, Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 in South-Africa and Euro 2012. And look, after an outstanding performace in the qualifiers (26 points in 10 games), tiny Belgium finally made its comeback on the big stage!
Hopes & dreams
In Brazil they won their 3 group games (we’ll shut up about Italy’s performance) against Russia, South-Korea and Algeria. They went on to beat, yes, the USA after extra time. FYI the population in USA is almost 30x bigger than the one from Belgium. Not to mention the huge contrast in land area. The fairytale ended in the quarter-final against Messi’s Argentina, a lucky Higuain goal ended my country’s hopes and dreams. A bit undeserved because after the early 1-0, Argentina was far from the most dangerous side. A semi-final wasn’t that far away. Alas.
Fast forward to 2015 and Belgium once again played an excellent qualifying round (23 points in 10 games, only 5 goals against), and are ready to do better than 2014. And hell why not, a final against let’s say Germany or Spain? The Belgian media believe. The people? Not so much (about 4% of the population thinks we will win Euro 2016). It’s up to the players to prove themselves. The time to harvest is now. A lot of them are entering their prime, like Kompany, Witsel, Fellaini, Vertonghen and Mertens. Others are still young but undeniably world class (Hazard, Benteke, Courtois, Lukaku, De Bruyne). And I’m stlill forgetting guys like Mignolet, Alderweireld, Dembele, Vermaelen,…
Pillars & sinking ships
One of those players in their prime and who’s surely gonna be present in France is Roma’s midfield dynamo Radja Nainggolan. He wasn’t an integral part of the team between 2012 and 2014 and even missed the World Cup in Brazil. Thank God Wilmots saw the light and included Radja ever since. He now features in a 4-3-3 midfield (sounds familiar, right?) alongside players like Witsel, De Bruyne, Dembele and Fellaini. It’s taken some time but the Ninja finally got the recognition he deserves from his national team. Look out for him tonight, he’ll be damn motivated when he faces the country he spends the most of his time in. The country that turned and molded Radja into the footballer we all know and love.
Standing in the other corner tonight: Italy. They’re in a totally different situation: After a great Euro 2012 the Azzurri haven’t been the same again. The pillars are getting too old for this sh*t (Lethal Weapon movie quote): Pirlo, Barzagli, Buffon, Cassano, Maggio, Thaigo Motta, Di Natale, … Even the coach, Prandelli, left the sinking ship. De Rossi’s still there but at the age of 32 he’s slowly entering the twilight of his international career as well.
Question marks & future stars
And so fresh face Antonio Conte was forced to rejuvenate (LOL! Get it? Conte? ReJUVEnate?!) the Azzurri but it came with a price: quality. Long gone are the days of Totti, Vieri, Panucci, Del Piero, Maldini, Inzaghi, Gattusso, Zambrotta, Camoranesi, Cannavaro, Nesta, … I even miss Grosso and Materazzi! Darmian, Astori, Zaza, Pelle, Soriano, Parolo and Cerci are decent but no world beaters. Only some of them, Verratti, Insigne and Florenzi spring to my mind, are future stars and the bright spots of this selection.
I never denied I’m a huge fan of the Azzurri (after all, they’re my second favorite international team after Belgium), but right now there are a lot of question marks behind the current crop of players. We might be witnessing a change of power. In the past Italy may have been crowned world champions four times but that doesn’t mean a thing in the present. Belgium’s young squad is miles better than Italy’s ageing one. The amount of talent is absurd, it’s right up there with Spain and Germany.
Don’t believe me? We’ll talk again in June 2016. Or, you know, tomorrow, after this talented Belgium side defeats a struggling Italy.