South Korea 2046 – World Cup Open Thread
Belgium Squad Review; World Cup Preview.
With the end of my turn in the FMCU “pass the parcel” save, it’s time to get back to business.
Nicolaj Bur has spent 4 years with the Belgians, winning Euro 2044 and two Nations League titles. They were a strong squad to begin with, but we’ve gone from strength to strength.
Unbeaten in 41 matches, dating back to March 2043. 25 straight wins, dating back to June 2044. 10 matches without conceding, dating back to June 2045.
We were dominant in our pre-tournament friendlies — annihilating 14th ranked Cameroon, 6-nil, and 14th-ranked Denmark, 3-nil.
Accordingly, it wouldn’t be hyperbole to state that Belgium are ready for the World Cup. More than ready.
We are playing PM Haaientand, the strikerless 3331 setup developed in collaboration with Guido Merry and Gareth Clarke, detailed in The Dirty Half Dozen. Park a tank in front of our goal. Get forward in numbers.
Let’s take a look at the squad.
When I first took over the Belgian setup, I identified Luca Bertini and Lucas Iket as the goalkeepers to watch. That remains the case, but I expected more of a battle between the two. As it is, Bertini will start. Iket is the backup. Matheo Martin won’t see the field — nowhere near good enough, but the youth prospects I’ve been keeping an eye on have yet to challenge him for the 3rd spot.
I’ve struggled a bit with squad depth, in terms of making some personnel choices between the 1st and 2nd XIs And, quite frankly, some players didn’t make the squad on the slimmest of margins.
Our starting back 3 in South Korea will be Sam Lambrecht at libero, with Guy Vervoort and Federico Turco as the centerbacks. Brent De Coene is our backup libero, with Yves Buisson and Robert Olive the backup centerbacks. This is an extremely strong group, 5 of which should be in the mix for 2050 World Cup — only Turco will be out of contention at that point, due to age. Olive has been a starter for years, but loses the position to Vervoort based on my gut feeling — it’s hard to distinguish between them.
At wingback, the 1st XI features Kevin Bakaert and Francesco Baglieri, with Roeland Denis and Arthur Bruyere in the 2nd XI. This is the capstone of Baglieri’s international career — 2 years ago, I wasn’t entirely sure he’d last. But his physicals haven’t dropped off a cliff, so he retains his starting spot. His backup, Bruyere, is probably the best prospect in the squad. He’s going to be a monster. Interesting, Denis is probably the least capable player in the squad. He just hasn’t developed over the last 4 years in any meaningful way.
Tough decisions in the midfield.
Our starting regista will be Pierre Simon, who narrowly edges out Lars Tant. Tant has a bright, long future in front of him with Belgium, he just hasn’t been able to eclipse Simon. I expected him to do it by now, but here we are. An unfortunate problem to have…2 solid registas. (Arguably Nevistic could start here, too.)
Dilemmas at roaming playmaker and mezzala, as I’ve had shuffled players between these roles over the last few years, trying to find the right mix.
For the World Cup, Sebastian Reynaud will be 1st XI’s roaming playmaker, with Ervin Nevistic in the 2nd XI. Nevistic could easily start here or at regista…and arguably at mezzala, too. An extremely solid, dependable backup who has only the misfortune of playing in an era where there’s a glut of Belgian talent.
Some of you might remember Maes from Partizan, where he was a massive signing from Gent, for only $9.75M — an absolute steal. Maes could start anywhere in our attack, and has started in every position over the last 4 years. That being said, the mezzalas are key attacking players in PM Haaientand (as demonstrated by several mezzalas being our leading goalscorers at Reims and Fiorentina), so this should put him in a position to shine.
To win the World Cup, we’ll need a big tournament from Maes. We will also need goals from the midfielders — and this group is as dangerous as any.
Like Maes, Fati could put in a shift anywhere in our midfield. He had to be in the squad. He was brought along as a shadow striker in lieu of someone with a more traditional “forward” profile, because of his obvious natural talent and versatility. He was essentially on par with others in consideration for this role, but the ability to deploy him anywhere from regista to shadow striker made it a no-brainer.
This side is very different from the Ivorian squad that won it all 4 years ago. In terms of sheer talent, they’re probably on par. I do think that this Belgian side is a bit more well-rounded/versatile. But that may just be primacy/recency bias.
Just like the Ivorians 4 years ago, we should be in the mix for the title. There’s no reason for us to not make a run.
Morocco and Uruguary should prove straightforward opposition in the Group Stage. We play on the first 2 dates in the fixture calendar, as well, so we should have time to rest before the knockout rounds begin.
In our first match, Morocco did the only reasonable thing and fielded a defensive, strikerless 4231 in hopes that a massed defense would stop our 2nd XI from running wild. It didn’t work, as we barely broke a sweat. Olive seemed determined to prove I’d made a mistake by dropping him to the 2nd XI, scoring twice and smashing the post in the 2nd half.
A solid start. But, more importantly, it was 90 minutes that our 1st XI did not have to play. We’ll have a week off after the match against Uruguay, meaning that approximately 2 weeks into the tournament, and our 1st XI will have only played 90 minutes. In the past, this kind of rotation has paid dividends…we’ll have to see if it does this year, as well.
Uruguay set up in a defensive 442 with 2 defensive midfielders, again looking to sit deep and prevent us from playing our game. And for 90 minutes, they held firm while we controlled the run of play (even if a defensive lapse nearly gifted Uruguay an early goal). It took a brilliant finish from Arthur Bruyere in the 90th minute to break the deadlock.
Maybe not the prettiest result, but a result nevertheless. We’ll face Traianos Dellas’ Greece in the Second Round.
The biggest shock of the Group Stage? No, not Nigeria crashing out after losing 1-nil to New Zealand, although that was a shock to me.
Greece were overmatched. An early goal set us on the path, but our 1st XI didn’t put them away. A Baglieri error just before the half allowed the Greeks a way back into the match, as they became the first team to score on us in more than a year’s time.
We bent, but we did not break. In pushing to find our 2nd, Baglieri got around the flank only to be cruelly hacked down. A straight red. From there, it was simply a matter of time.
We’re through to face South Africa in the Third Round. Elsewhere, both Brazil and Argentina were eliminated by South American opponents on penalties (by Colombia and Uruguay, respectively).
In expectation of a straightforward 90 minutes, we take a risk. We rotate all 10 field players, to ensure that our 1st XI is fresh for the quarterfinals. Our 2nd XI should be able to handle South Africa…
Our faith and depth are rewarded, when Arthur Bruyere beats a man and feeds Mamadu Fati, who buries it in the 6th minute. We control the match at all times, and advance to face ze Germans in the quarterfinals. A rematch of the Euro 2044 final, which we won 3-2. My hope is that our 1st XI will be well-rested (or, at least, more well-rested than Germany’s 1st-choice XI).
A nervy match. I loved what seemed to be an edge regarding player fitness.
For 90 minutes, Germany controlled possession but had nothing to show for it, whatsoever. And in the 91st, a lightning-fast counterattack saw Rigamonti find Davy “Danger” Maes on a cutback. 1-nil. It’s all we needed. We’re through to the semifinals.
Germany clearly had not rotated their side, as the post-match screenshot shows. Our slight fitness edge paid off late.
We will face Portugal, who beat the Dutch on penalties. The Dutch not only played 30 additional minutes of football, we have an extra day of rest.
Against the Portuguese, we’re able to play our 1st XI for the most part – Ervin Nevistic is on for Pierre Simon, with Hans De Boeck on for Federico Rigamonti.
Portugal sit deep from the first whistle, enjoying possession for no purpose whatsoever throughout the first half. Whenever we have the ball, however, we look dangerous.
Things got a bit dicey at the start of the 2nd half, when Portugal had a clear chance — a big save from Bertini is the reason we didn’t fall behind. Moments later, the Portuguese rattled the bar from outside the 18. We cleared, however, and regained our composure.
With 20 minutes to play, it was time to ring the changes. De Coene on for a tiring Lambrecht. Fati on for Raynaud, with Maes shifting into the roaming playmaker role. Bruyere, on for Baglieri.
We create the lion’s share of the chances, but a deep-lying Portugal manage to keep us at bay. The lottery of penalties will decide who advances.
Bertini saves the first, but Rigamonti cannot give us the advantage, the Portuguese keeper saving well.
Martins fires the second Portuguese penalty a mile wide…a chance, if we can seize it. De Boeck smashes it home. 1-nil.
Gomes and Fati both score in the third round of penalties. 2-1.
Portugal smash their fourth penalty home, but Nevistic hits his well-wide. 2-2, going into the fifth round.
Godwin hits Portugal’s fifth. The pressure is on young Bruyere’s shoulders…he buries it. 3-3. Into sudden death.
The Portuguese bury their 6th. Janssen, composed, buries his. 4-4.
Portugal have ice in their veins. Burying their 7th. Bertini can’t get close. De Coene’s poor penalty somehow sneaks in. 5-5.
Salgado makes it 6-5. Ice. Turco steps forward…and his poor penalty also sneaks in. 6-6. But Portugal are the side burying their penalties, while ours are weak. 6-6. Something has to give.
Almeida buries Portugal’s 10th. Emphatic. Bekaert steps forward…so much pressure on his shoulders. Denied. His poor effort, saved by Aston Villa’s Edson Pereira.
Portugal advance. The dream is over.
Third Place Match; Tournament Review.
We faced Croatia in the third place match. We didn’t play well. We won. Who cares.
Of course, the Belgian FA are mad. My job listed as insecure, even though our undefeated streak has stretched to 48 matches, more than 3 years (dating back to March 2043). We’ve given up 1 goal in our 17 matches. My job is insecure, because we lost to an ultra-defensive Portugal on penalties?! Give me a break. (I’m this close to resigning on principle, but am walking away from the laptop.)
In the final, Ferro’s Portugal beat Etienne Capoue’s England on penalties, their 3rd straight win on penalties in the knockout rounds:
If you’ve stumbled upon this post and are finding yourself a bit confused… Don’t worry. The basic concept behind the Nearly Men save is explained here. Just need to catch up? Each installment in Nicolaj Bur’s story can be accessed through the Nearly Men Archive.
And if you just can’t get enough…join us for The Ballad of Toothless Bob, a series that explores the world of Nicolaj Bur, away from the pitch. What is Project Arcturus? What lies beyond the twisted redstone door, deep in the bowels of the Santiago Bernabéu?