Struggling Belgians may prove to be a double-edged sword
Published 04/04/2016 | 02:30
The lack of Ireland internationals in the Champions League is often used as a yardstick to judge the standard of player available to Martin O'Neill. However, as the competition returns this week, it seems odd that his Belgian counterpart, like O'Neill, can enjoy tomorrow and Wednesday safe in the knowledge that the vast majority of his key players will not get hurt. Because they won't be playing.
Thomas Vermaelen played only twice in Belgium's qualifying campaign. There is a chance that he could feature for Barcelona against Atletico, although given he has taken two seasons to rocket through the double-figure appearance barrier, it's a stretch to see him being anything other than a human time-wasting device if Barca need to run down the clock with a substitute.
Atletico striker Yannick Carrasco didn't feature in their 5-1 win over Betis on Saturday, and is unlikely to start against Barca tomorrow night - meaning that, of the starting line-up likely to face Italy on June 13, only Kevin De Bruyne will be among the 100 players or so that make up the quarter-finals.
Unlike Ireland, the majority of the Belgium squad at least did take some part in the competition this season - as they did in the Europa League - but when it comes to the world's premier club competition, the country ranked as the world's best team will be poorly represented.
De Bruyne's excellent comeback from injury on Saturday means he will be crucial to Manchester City's hopes of reaching the last four - Vincent Kompany would also play were it not for injury - but it's a measure of how badly the season has gone for Belgium's players that the return is so paltry.
And yet, there's a very real danger that their players decided fairly early in the season that nothing good was going to come of their club season and their commitment and concentration would be focused solely on the summer.
Eden Hazard, it seems, has behaved like a post-Leaving Cert student who decided to take a year out before going to college, such is the complete absence of any impact on Chelsea's campaign either in the Premier League or in Europe.
If coach, Marc Wilmots, needs to give him any extra motivation, however, he could find plenty by pinning a few newspaper articles to the wall involving Roy Keane's comments about Hazard from earlier in the season. (The modern equivalent is probably tagging him in a Facebook post, but it doesn't quite conjure up the same imagery).
In February, Keane questioned Hazard's attitude after he revealed that it would be difficult to turn down a move to Paris Saint Germain.
"If I was a team-mate of his, I would kick him up and down the training pitch," said Keane. "Some of the senior players have got to get hold of him. He's a talented boy, but his attitude is like a spoilt child. It was absolutely ridiculous."
A month later, again as part of his punditry role on ITV, Keane launched into Hazard for his decision to get a Paris Saint Germain shirt one season earlier by swapping it with Angel Di Maria at half-time in the game at Stamford Bridge.
"I'm afraid to comment on this," said Keane - before, naturally, commenting. "It's bad enough at the end of the game, but half-time in a big game, the two guys swapping shirts? It's shocking.
"What is going through a player's mind? In such a big game, they are thinking about swapping jerseys at half-time? I wouldn't even bother at the end of the game. Shocking."
As ever with Keane, there was a valid point, but the contrast between Keane the ITV pundit and Keane the Ireland assistant manager was stark when he was asked about the struggles of the Belgian players before Ireland's two recent friendlies.
"They'll have a week or two to re-charge their batteries and what they have - even when certain players are having a dip - they still have that real quality, so don't think for one minute we are rubbing our hands going, 'Well, there are a few Belgium players having a dip in form'," he said.
"That can change very quickly - because, when you have quality, that quality is always there and you can still turn it on."
It's not the sort of stuff that makes it to the dressing room wall.
Over the years, Ireland have benefited from the double-edged sword of players being in poor form for their clubs because of the release that international football allows them and the shop window it provides, particularly at major competitions.
Romelu Lukaku's agent has already talked up the possibility of a summer switch, meaning that the motivation to move from Everton mid-table mediocrity to mid-table respectability in the final few weeks of the season isn't going to be high on his list of priorities.
Fellow striker Christian Benteke will also have similar aspirations of using the tournament to escape from Merseyside if he recovers from a knee injury in time while, of the likely staring line-up, the Tottenham pair of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, as well as Napoli's Dries Mertens, are the only three players involved in title races that will distract their focus.
Very few of the Belgian stars are hitting the same heights as they were last year but, as Irish optimism rises in its inevitable way, it's dangerous to place too much emphasis on the form of players who have already mentally finished with their club season.
Still, at least there's always Marouane Fellaini...
Tweets of the week
Thank You so much @HKane. Loved your goal against Germany. Good Luck with your PL chase!
This slot is normally reserved for footballers, but we'll make an exception for one of the world's best batsmen
So happy to be back in training #avfc
The Villa man's tweet happened to coincide with the sacking of Remi Garde. Maybe Grealish will get on well with his third manager in a year.
Mate, gutted for you and wish you a solid recovery! You can come round mine and we can watch the euros together! Head up mate! @the_dilsh
A nice tweet from the injured Stoke stopper to Irish international Rob Elliot
Apologies for no post op selfie. I had surgery yesterday and all went well, delighted to have moved up two cup sizes
Unlike Walters, fellow Irish international and knee victim Robbie Keane posted a post-op selfie a few hours later
And before you lot start... this is not an April Fools
The Arsenal man posts a picture of himself returning to training with, in fairness, quite a sharp caption.
4:0! What a perfect start to our season finish in the @premierleague!
Arsenal and Ozil may have been better served 'starting their finish' sooner.
Good to be back after break, ready to go !
Tweeting three hours before kick-off wouldn't have happened in Fergie's day.