After a lackluster 1-0 victory over Macedonia on Thursday in the first match of World Cup 2014 qualifying, Croatia travel to Brussels on Tuesday for a true test against a revamped Belgian side.
And remember, this is not your daddy’s Belgium.
After missing out on Euro 2012, finishing two points behind Turkey in a group where Germany went perfect, Belgium could very well hit their prime with this current crop of players during this qualifying campaign. In no way, shape or form should they be taken lightly.
The Belgium defensive line is comprised of three English Premiership players who know how to score. In their 2-0 victory over 10-man Wales on Thursday, both goals came from defenders. Manchester City and Belgium captain Vincent Kompany headed home a corner three minutes before the break and new Tottenham Hotspur signing Jan Vertonghen blasted home a free kick in the 82nd minute. Add Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen to the mix and you have a complete threat coming from the back.
Kompany, Vertonghen goals vs. Wales
The Premiership theme continues in the Belgian midfield with Everton man and Sideshow Bob look-a-like Marouane Fellaini, new Tottenham signing Moussa Dembélé and 21 year-old Chelsea midfielder Eden Hazard. All of the above mentioned Belgian players have been in fine club form, but will it translate over to the international game this time around? Belgium is due for a good qualifying campaign, and it could come as soon as now. Most Croatians are only looking at Serbia as a threat to the Vatreni on their way to the World Cup in Brazil, but that shouldn’t be the case. Serbia will be an emotional confrontation, but this Belgian side has the goods to make a run.
But where Belgium is strong in offensively-minded midfielders and defenders, they lack that same quality at the forward position. Everton frontman Kevin Mirallas received the start vs. Wales but only managed two shots alongside Dembele, who was pushed up for the match. 19 year-old Romelu Lukaku should be a star one day, but his impact in this campaign should be minimal at best.
Vedran Ćorluka has been ruled out for this match due to a left ankle/achilles injury he picked up on Thursday with all signs pointing to Gordan Schildenfeld as his replacement. It also looks as if Ivan Rakitić will ride the bench after a poor game vs. Macedonia, with Niko Kranjčar looking to come into the Croatia starting XI.
The bottom line: Belgium is a good team this time around and a draw in Brussels should be considered a success. A win for Croatia would set the precedent for the group early with two light games versus Wales and Macedonia in October, but a draw would get the job done. Either way, the Vatreni should roll into 2013 with some momentum and positive results before they face Scotland and Serbia twice, and Belgium once again in Croatia.
But first, Belgium in Brussels on Tuesday.