By Tim Dykes
The fate of the Belgium national team could be in the hands of a teenager on Saturday after coach Aimé Anthuenis selected 17-year-old Vincent Kompany for the vital UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifier against Estonia.
The RSC Anderlecht defender may gain his international debut as Belgium look to round off their inconsistent Group 8 campaign with a home victory - but even that may not be enough to secure a place in the play-offs for next summer's tournament. Bulgaria have already won the group ahead of Saturday's trip to Croatia, who need only match Belgium's result to secure a second-place finish thanks to their head-to-head record.
The introduction of Kompany, a revelation at the Constant Vanden Stock this season, could just be the answer to plugging a leaky Belgium defence that has shipped nine goals in seven games - more than Croatia and Estonia put together. The 4-0 defeat dished out by Croatia in Zagreb left Anthuenis conceding "Croatia gained the psychological advantage" as his squad's collective heads dropped. At one stage in June, Belgium were languishing in fourth spot, but back-to-back home wins over Andorra and Croatia have reignited their challenge.
Although Olympic champions in 1920, Belgium's finest hour on the global stage came when they reached the semi-finals of the 1986 FIFA World Cup - when Kompany was just two months old. Six years later, with the youngster already showing great promise, Anderlecht invited him on board and helped him mature into an imposing, powerful centre-half.
Despite being a regular in the Belgian Under-17 and Under-18 sides, Kompany only made his first-team debut for Anderlecht three months ago against AFC Rapid Bucuresti in a UEFA Champions League qualifying tie. But since then he has been outstanding in a side who sit proudly on top of the Belgian first division. Although he is expected to start on the bench against Estonia, with Daniel Van Buyten and Timmy Simons likely to fill the central defensive berths, a first cap would complete a remarkable rise for the Anderlecht prodigy.
Age no barrier
If he features in the game, Kompany - who still combines his professional career with school work - will become the youngest player to represent Belgium since the legendary Paul Van Himst in 1960 and Anthuenis believes he is ready for the international stage. "There was no reason for me not to select him because of his age," the coach said. "
When a 17-year-old plays better than a 30-year-old, why shouldn't I select him?"
Kompany's Anderlecht team-mate Oliver Doll has withdrawn after picking up a groin injury in Sunday's 1-1 draw with Club Brugge KV and Anthuenis has several injury worries ahead of the game in Liège. Wing-back Peter Van der Heyden injured his calf during training on Tuesday, a session midfield player Jonathan Walasiak missed because of flu.
With goalkeeper Geert de Vlieger and midfield player Walter Baseggio training separately while they nurse light muscle injuries, preparations have not been ideal as they meet an Estonia team whose bid for a play-off place only ended with defeat by Bulgaria last month. RCD Espanyol goalkeeper Erwin Lemmens has even been called into the squad by Anthuenis as cover for De Vlieger. "I just want to be cautious," the coach admitted.
Meanwhile, Croatia, looking to gain revenge for a 2-0 defeat in Bulgaria last October, go into their home match with the group winners with Igor Bišcan recalled after regaining a place in the Liverpool FC team. His last game for his nation was in April 2001. defeat in Bulgaria last October.
Additional reporting by Berend Scholten
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