(Reuters) - Factbox on the Belgium national team ahead of the 2018 World Cup:
FIFA Ranking: 3 (till June 7)
Belgium have appeared in 12 World Cups, with their qualification for the 2014 edition in Brazil coming after a gap of 12 years. The Red Devils lost to Argentina in the quarter-finals in Brazil and their best performance remains their semi-final appearance in 1986 when they fell to the eventual champions, also Argentina.
Coach: Roberto Martinez: The 44-year-old Spaniard was a surprise successor to Marc Wilmots, who was dismissed after Belgium lost to Wales in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals. Martinez was then himself out of work after being sacked by Everton following a frustrating season in which they finished 11th in the Premier League. The former Swansea City manager, however, led unfancied Wigan Athletic to their only FA Cup victory in 2013 when the club beat Manchester City in the final. Under him Belgium cruised to the top of their qualifying group for Russia with an unbeaten record, becoming the first European nation to secure their spot for the 2018 finals.
Kevin de Bruyne: The 26-year-old Manchester City midfielder has been the driving force in Pep Guardiola’s record-breaking side. De Bruyne’s work rate and ability to produce a procession of pinpoint passes took City to a new level, leaving all other title aspirants lagging way behind.
Eden Hazard: The Chelsea playmaker had a similar impact in Chelsea’s Premier League-winning campaign a year ago, much like De Bruyne’s this time around. Hazard’s dribbling and movement, on and off the ball, constantly pose questions for defenders and the 27-year-old can carve through the toughest of defenses when in form.
The 24-year-old striker, who joined Manchester United at the beginning of the season, is a proven goalscorer with more than 100 strikes in the Premier League and is already Belgium’s all-time top scorer with 33. With a dazzling midfield featuring De Bruyne and Hazard, Belgium will depend heavily on Lukaku to find the net.
After drawing 3-3 against Mexico in Brussels last November, Roberto Martinez’s side went on to beat Japan 1-0 four days later and then picked up a confidence-boosting 4-0 victory over Saudi Arabia towards the end of March. They will play three more warm-up matches in June before kicking off their World Cup campaign against Panama on June 18.
How they qualified:The Red Devils cruised through their qualification group, becoming the first European nation to secure their spot for the finals in Russia. Belgium finished as Group H winners, with nine wins and a draw, scoring 43 goals in the process.
Like four years ago in Brazil, Belgium will once again arrive on the world stage in Russia replete with talent who ply their trade in top leagues across Europe. They showed what they are capable of during World Cup qualification. While few doubt their attacking prowess, the jury is still out on their defensive organization. They will be expected to top Group G which includes England, Panama and Tunisia, but will need a solid backline to ensure the campaign does not end up as another missed opportunity.
Compiled by Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai; editing by Neville Dalton