Canada, Croatia, Morocco, and Belgium

Romelu Lukaku (left) and Roberto Martinez

Romelu Lukaku (left) and Roberto Martinez
Photo: Getty Images

“BELGIUM’S LAST CHANCE!” You’ve heard or seen this already. They are Europe’s big waste of the last decade. There has been no bigger collection of talent than what Belgium has sported for the last four major tournaments, and a 3rd place in Russia is all they’ve had to show for it. Either this is where the last spin comes up good, or the pressure of the previous failures cracks everything.

Belgium have been the hipster pick to win either the World Cup or Euros since 2014 or so, ever since Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard started tearing part the Premier League at the seams, Romelu Lukaku started living up to his promise, Thibault Courtois became maybe the best keeper in the world, and an absurd amount of talent spread all over Europe’s best clubs. And they’ve never lived up to it. They kicked it at the quarterfinal stage to Argentina in 2014, somehow got slapped out of Euro 2016 by Wales, couldn’t overcome France in Russia and then found an Italian wall in their way in the summer of 2021. You could argue, if you were so inclined, that with this group of obscenely talented players, they’ve only beaten one true heavyweight in four tournaments, and that was Brazil in the quarters of 2018. And they were extremely lucky to do so (Brazil took 27 shots and ran up a 2.8-0.5 xG count in that game). Quite simply, the Red Devils have not lived up to the billing.

Some (like me) would point the finger at manager Roberto Martinez, who has always used his ease and availability with the media to mask the fact that he might not have any idea what he’s doing. He’s one of a parade of managers who made Everton a mess, though that might be intrinsic to that club. He somehow parlayed that into the Belgium job, where even with the unique collection of attacking talent, Belgium have never looked all that dynamic or cohesive.

Part of Belgium’s problem is that Martinez insists on a 3-4-2-1 formation, which doesn’t always get the best out of De Bruyne, though maximizes the plethora of players who can play at the wingback spots. The other problem is that Martinez has his favorites and rarely goes away from them. Even if one of them is Eden Hazard, who hasn’t played regularly for Real Madrid in three seasons and just isn’t the guy he was. Leandro Trossard or Charles de Ketelaere would gleefully take the spot opposite De Bruyne behind either Lukaku or Michy Batshuayi, and yet Hazard keeps finding himself in the starting 11. There are other kids who have chafed at sitting behind entrenched vets like Axel Witsel, who is almost certainly past his sell-by date.

The problem that Martinez is going to have to solve this time around is how to go farther in the tournament than Belgium ever has, the only acceptable result, with a defense that is three days older than water. It will still be anchored by Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld (combined age: Statler and Waldorf). Based on their recent Nations League outings, it looks like 19-year-old Zeno Debast will join them in the back three. It is certainly one way to go about it, but Belgium aren’t blessed with too many other options. In a lot of spots they have great starters but not too many options off the bench.

Martinez has never been too concerned with defending, always figuring he can outscore his defensive shortcomings, which would seem to be the only way for this Belgium squad with the defense so old. Which they can do. The firepower at wingback is the envy of most, with any of Yannick Carrasco, Trossard, Thomas Meunier, Timothy Castagne, and Thorgan Hazard able to play in the role. And all of them basically want to play as a forward while playing wingback. It’s why Belgium can put up big numbers as they’ve done in the past, like putting up three on Russia in the Euros or eight combined against Panama and Tunisia in the last World Cup, or storming back from two down against Japan as they did in that tournament as well.

But it’s always come unstuck when it’s time to dance with the big boys. Brazil, France, Portugal, and Italy didn’t find it all that difficult to neuter the attack. In those four games, all in the knockout stages of the last two tourneys, Belgium only piled up 2.9 xG combined, and 1.8 of that was against italy in 2021. Pin the wingbacks back, and suddenly they’re blunt. Canada’s wingers must be licking their chops.

Still, Belgium have been “around it” for a while now, and would only need a couple bounces to find themselves in the semis or even final. Should they win the group, they’ll get a very flawed opponent out of Group E be it Germany, Spain, or Mexico, or Japan. Get through that and it could be Portugal or Uruguay or Serbia or Switzerland or Cameroon, unless something goofy happens with Brazil in the group stage. Should they not win the group, then Brazil is much more likely to be waiting in the quarters.

Still, it would be a question how Martinez is going to balance his damn-the-torpedoes tactics with a defense that gets older by the second, if anyone thought Martinez was ever going to worry about it. It would be great if a swashbuckling side stormed to the trophy, but that rarely if ever happens. And it’ll be an interesting study to see how they deal with Canada’s rampaging wingbacks on the counter, much less a Portugal or Germany.

They won’t be the only ones worried about being aged in certain spots, as Croatia are still bringing along some wise old heads like Luka Modrić, Ivan Perišić, and Dejan Lovren. If momentum is a thing (it isn’t), then Croatia will have it coming into this tournament, as their last four games in the Nations League saw them go 3-0-1 against Denmark twice, France, and Austria.

While the defense may need some tinkering, the midfield is set with Modric, Mateo Kovačić, and Marcelo Brozović. Mario Pašilić is a nailed on starter in the front three, but the other two spots up front have been juggled through a host of options. There just isn’t a forward grabbing their chance with both hands.

But whatever you perceive Croatia’s problems to be–a lack of sure thing forward or some questions on defense — no team comes together quite the way Croatia seems to.

We would all like to think that Canada are just here for the party, because the last thing anyone needs is happy distracted Leafs fans, even for a couple weeks, but this group might have set up well for the Hosers to pull yet another surprise as they did in qualifying. The world doesn’t need to know more about Alphonso Davies on the counter, but in combination with Tajon Buchanan and Jonathan David in the middle, they could easily throw a fright into an exposed, aging defense like Belgium and a wonky one like Croatia. Or Cyle Larin, their leading scorer in qualifying, can come in to pair with David with Davies behind them, a look they sported in a friendly against Uruguay in September. How far Canada can go will probably hinge on how well their midfield duo of Stephen Estáquio and Samuel Piette/Richie Lareya can deal with the solid midfields they’ll see in the group stage. If they can’t provide a launch platform for Canada’s forwards, they’ll be home before the postcards. If they hold their own, there’s enough pace and spirit in this team to put up results that will pop some eyebrows. We know they’ll be at home tactically in games against Belgium and Croatia as both those sides will probably have more of the ball, and Canada already kicked around both Mexico and the US without it and hitting on the counter. The sight of either of those teams trying to chase down Canada when they get loose on a counter will be good for a chuckle

Morocco, just in time, came to the realization that having your best players is probably a good idea for a World Cup. So they canned the manager who had caused Hakim Ziyech to quit the national team, hired Walid Regragrui, who immediately welcomed Ziyech back. Which means Ziyech is back to combine with Achraf Hakimi on the right side, with Ziyech tucking in and leaving all the space for Hakimi to romp through. Morocco would find a lot of teams wanting to swap fullbacks with them, with Hakimi on the right and Munich’s Noussair Mazraoui on the other side (though his natural side is on the right too but needs must). Sofyan Amrabat is a very fine anchor in midfield, and Sofiane Boufal on the flip side from Ziyech has the potential to actually be a pretty sexy part of the attack. They will not be a pushover in this group.

Most likely manager to get red carded

Croatia’s Zlatko Dalić, for just being so damn handsome.

Best jerseys

I’m always a sucker for Croatia’s checkerboard look, but this time around it’s their away shirts that are truly boss.


Wednesday, November 23rd – Morocco v. Croatia (5am EST), Belgium v. Canada (2pm EST)

Sunday, November 27th – Belgium v. Morocco (8am EST), Croatia v. Canada (11am EST)

Thursday, December 1st – Belgium v. Croatia, Canada v. Morocco (10am EST)