Belgium travel to World Cup in Russia as sixth favourites to win the biggest prize in football… but is that under …

Craig Hope for MailOnline

It was not so long ago that Belgium were the left-field pick of the supposedly savvy punter, ‘dark horses’ we liked to call them.

As if from nowhere, after a 12-year absence from major tournaments, they arrived at the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 with a squad full of Premier League stars.

The money poured in for this Golden Generation and, as odds tumbled, expectation rose. It proved too much and their journey ended with a 1-0 defeat to eventual finalists Argentina in the last eight.

Belgium travel to next summer's World Cup in Russia as sixth favourites for the biggest prize

Belgium travel to next summer’s World Cup in Russia as sixth favourites for the biggest prize

By the time Euro 2016 came around, Belgium had been ranked No 1 in the world and, with a value in excess of £300million, boasted the most expensive squad at the finals.

They fared no better. If anything, a quarter-final exit to unfancied Wales suggested they had regressed, not progressed.

And so it is that their efforts at two major tournaments have perhaps tempered expectation. Indeed, they travel to Russia as sixth favourites for the game’s biggest prize with odds as long as 14/1.

Is that, however, under-estimating England’s Group G opponents? We take a closer look…

Belgium will look to go far in the World Cup after a disappointing Euro 2016 campaign
Belgium will look to go far in the World Cup after a disappointing Euro 2016 campaign

Belgium will look to go far in the World Cup after a disappointing Euro 2016 campaign

Qualifying…

Only Germany – with a 100-per-cent record – qualified with a better return from the UEFA pool.

Roberto Martinez’s side drew just one game as they ran away with their group, scoring 43 goals from 10 matches and conceding just six times. Romelu Lukaku averaged a goal every 57 minutes and notched 11 in total.

In fairness, you wouldn’t have expected anything less against the likes of Gibraltar, Cyprus and Estonia, but Belgium were nonetheless ruthless in the manner in which they disposed of the minnows.

Bosnia, meanwhile, are no mugs, and Belgium put eight past them over two games.

Belgium drew just one game as they ran away with their World Cup qualifying group
Belgium drew just one game as they ran away with their World Cup qualifying group

Belgium drew just one game as they ran away with their World Cup qualifying group

Premier League stars…

The likelihood is that Belgium will have two PFA Players’ Player of the Year in their team next summer. Eden Hazard was the winner in 2015 and Kevin de Bruyne looks a cert this time around.

And how about that for an attacking pair in behind Lukaku? It is a frightening enough prospect having to devise a plan to deal with one of De Bruyne or Hazard, never mind worrying about both of them.

But if they provide the flair and artistry of this team, it is the likes of Spurs centre-back pairing Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld who offer the steel, not forgetting Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany and his Manchester United rival Marouane Fellaini. Supporting all of that, of course, is Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

In short, they have class all over the park.

Manchester City star Kevin de Bruyne will look to set the World Cup alight next summer
Manchester City star Kevin de Bruyne will look to set the World Cup alight next summer

Manchester City star Kevin de Bruyne will look to set the World Cup alight next summer

Manager…

His reputation may have taken a hit towards the end of his time at Everton, but Martinez is restoring his stock in the international arena.

He has added a World Cup and European Championships winner in Thierry Henry to his backroom team and that experience could prove invaluable at Martinez’s first finals.

His laid-back demeanour is perfect for the intensity of a major tournament. Indeed, he is the polar opposite of the unpopular Marc Wilmots, who he replaced after the disappointment of Euro 2016.

Belgium have been drawn against England, Tunisia and Panama in their World Cup group
Belgium have been drawn against England, Tunisia and Panama in their World Cup group

Belgium have been drawn against England, Tunisia and Panama in their World Cup group

Verdict…

It is likely that only Brazil will have a more expensive squad than Belgium when it comes to transfer fees paid. That, of course, counted for nothing at Euro 2016, but it does prove the quality which resides in their group.

In De Bruyne they have a player ready to make that ascent from star to superstar and a World Cup – which will surely arrive on the back of a Premier League title – is the perfect platform for him to make that leap.

They aren’t quite the ‘dark horses’ of four years ago, but the bookies’ odds would still have them exiting at the quarter-final stage. This might just be the year when they finally go one – or perhaps two – steps further.

You can only hope that England do not need a result by the time they face Belgium in their final group game. 

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