Thursday 10 May 2018, 08:22

Red Devils return to the ranking's upper reaches

  • Belgium back into top three for first time in 20 months

  • On a 16-match unbeaten run under Roberto Martinez

  • Scored 57 goals in that time

Belgium fans do not need to look at the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to know they are witnessing potentially their greatest ever era – their team sheet screams it.

However, while names like Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois and Jan Vertonghen spell out the quality they possess, the Red Devils' return to the ranking podium, for the first time in almost two years shows why they remain one of the outside favourites to clinch the FIFA World Cup™ crown.

They will arrive in impressive shape, too, having not tasted defeat since shaking their UEFA EURO 2016 hangover, where a quarter-final exit to Wales preceded a 2-0 loss at the hands of Spain – head coach Roberto Martinez’s first game in charge.

But now they are 16 games unbeaten, a run which has seen them climb back into the top three after dipping to as low as tenth ten months ago – featuring eight wins in their last nine games.

Goal rush The addition of assistant coach Thierry Henry also seems to be working wonders, as the goals have been pouring out of the Belgians since he joined the team alongside Martinez. They’ve notched up 57 in that time, scoring at least three in no fewer than ten of those unbeaten games, though 23 were racked up across three matches with Gibraltar and Estonia.

Foremost in the goalscoring stakes has been Manchester United No9 Romelu Lukaku. In his last 11 starts he has clocked up a superb 16 in a 3-4-3 system which he says has “freed me from prison”. Having sparkled at Brazil 2014 – scoring the goal that sent them into the quarter-finals — Lukaku looks set to shine on the global stage once again.

“Rom is someone who has taken that maturity over the last few months to a different level,” Martinez explained following their latest victory – a 4-0 defeat of fellow Russia-bound side Saudi Arabia. “His understanding of the game is evolving all the time. His back-to-goal play has been very good. His focus and trying to be very unselfish in the box is something he is developing really well.”

A central cog Equally impressive is the array of scorers – 14 in all – as Belgium became the first European side to join Russia on the list of qualified nations. However, what seems like almost an anomaly is that only one of them has been netted by Kevin De Bruyne.

Having hit four and five respectively in sending the Red Devils to Brazil and EURO 2016, De Bruyne has been redeployed by Martinez at the heart of everything Belgium do, giving the likes of Hazard freedom and license to bear down on goal. Seven assists in 11 starts, compared to eight in his last 20 under Marc Wilmots, presents a clear change in focus.

“I don’t think you’ll find another midfielder in European football with the impact he has had on a team,” Martinez said of his No7’s influence in guiding Manchester City to the English Premier League title.

Steely test awaits Ahead of the final two pre-World Cup ranking updates (on 17 May and 7 June), Group G stands as the only section to have three of its teams inside the top 15: Belgium (3), England (13), Tunisia (14). With Panama making up the quartet, they are left with a challenging proposition in Russia.

Even so, some of the tournament favourites know they cannot be overlooked. “I think Belgium has an excellent team and can be a surprise in this World Cup,” admitted Neymar. And should they find themselves turning their ranking podium spot into a place on the World Cup equivalent, they will be the best Belgian performers in history.