Belgium's Under-21s can this week move a step closer to following in the footsteps of their senior counterparts by ending their own major tournament wait.
The full Belgium side will be involved in this summer's FIFA World Cup – their first finals since the 2002 edition in Korea/Japan. Johan Walem's youngsters, meanwhile, top UEFA European U21 Championship qualifying Group 9, three points clear of Serbia ahead of their meeting in Louvain on Wednesday. Victory would take them a step closer to the play-offs and, subsequently, their first U21 final tournament since 2007, when they reached the last four.
De Jonge Duivels (Young Red Devils) made a flying start to qualifying, taking maximum points from their first four games. They have since slowed down, however, losing 1-0 at home to Itay and drawing 2-2 in Serbia in the autumn. While Marc Wilmots's team have been particularly revered, as a so-called 'golden generation', Walem too has his fair share of talent to call on. Indeed, squad members Thorgan Hazard, Maxime Lestienne and Michy Batshuayi finished first, second and fourth respectively in the 2013 Belgian player of the year awards.
Wilmots's appreciation of the importance of the U21 side is typified by his decision to allow R. Standard de Liège striker Batshuayi – top scorer in the Belgian First League with 17 goals – to aid Walem's cause, rather than be involved in the senior friendly against Ivory Coast.
"Michy is a great player," said Wilmots. "He is having a great season with Standard, but now the U21s can make great use of him for Wednesday's qualifier against Serbia." Such mutual accommodation between Wilmots and Walem can be traced back to their days as Belgium team-mates, with both men ending their international careers after the 2-0 last-16 defeat by Brazil at the 2002 World Cup – their country's last game on a major stage.
"I want to help to develop Belgian football and in this job I have a key role in doing so," said Walem. A first U21s finals in eight years would be a big step.
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