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15 of 036

Group A rivals feast on the qualities of some of the best players in Europe

Graeme Macpherson
Football Writer

TO most countries, the loss of Marouane Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku would represent something of a minor crisis.

To Belgium it is a mere inconvenience. The favourites to win Scotland's World Cup qualifying group head into this evening's match in Serbia minus two players who would likely stroll into the starting line-ups of most nations. But not Belgium's.

If coach Marc Wilmots and his staff don't seem overly distraught at having to do without the Everton midfielder and the Chelsea forward, currently on loan at West Bromwich Albion, it is because they have done so before. In their last qualifying match – a 1-1 draw at home to Croatia – both Fellaini and Lukaku started on the bench, hard as that must be to countenance for regular watchers of the Barclays Premier League, where the duo regularly impress.

There are injury doubts, too, over Vincent Kompany and Axel Witsel. If the Manchester City captain fails to make it (and Wilmots says he has a 90% chance of playing) then Daniel Van Buyten can step in, a Bayern Munich defender with 67 caps. And how do you replace Witsel, the wild-haired midfielder who moved for £35m to Zenit St Petersburg in the summer? With Nacer Chadli, the exciting 23-year-old winger at FC Twente. Also on the bench against Croatia were Kevin Mirallas, the forward who has made an immediate impact at Everton, and Kevin de Bruyne, the Chelsea attacker on loan at Werder Bremen, while Christian Benteke, the 21-year-old Aston Villa striker, is another forward option. It is the sort of strength in depth that points towards a country ready to ascend to the list of elite footballing nations, and presumably sooner rather than later.

It has not been all plain sailing, however. An opening-day victory in Cardiff was an impressive start but was achieved against a Wales team who played with 10 men for over an hour. Belgium were leading by then but could not find a second goal to make sure of victory until seven minutes from time. The draw with Croatia, probably their strongest rivals in the group, could be considered as two points dropped given it came in front of their own fans.

It has created something of an early logjam at the top of Group A, with Serbia, Croatia and Belgium all having garnered four points from their first two games. Tonight's match in Belgrade, therefore, will be an intriguing test of Belgian mettle. Serbia lashed six goals past Wales in their previous home game in Novi Sad and so a Belgian victory, if they could achieve it, must be viewed as a real signal of intent, as well as sending panic through the travelling Tartan Army ahead of Scotland's trip to Brussels next week.

It is difficult to know what to make of Serbia, a side who looked fairly ordinary during their goalless draw at Hampden but then went on a devastating scoring spree against the hapless Welsh. The decision to keep tonight's match in the capital has not gone down well with coach Sinisa Mihajlovic or his players, well aware that previous internationals played in Belgrade have tended to be hijacked by warring Partizan and Red Star fans, more intent on abusing each other and those players with ties to their rivals rather than backing the national team.

"All we want is unreserved support from a full house in Belgrade when we lock horns with Belgium because we will need our home crowd to act like an extra man on the pitch," was the plea from Aleksandar Kolarov, Manchester City's Serbian defender. "Teams that have never made it to a major tournament have stronger support than we do and the time has come for fans in Belgrade to forget about their divisions and breathe like one to put wind in our sails. In order to be strong we must feel like a team of eight million, otherwise reaching the 2014 World Cup in Brazil will remain a distant dream."

The other game in Group A has Croatia make the relatively short journey to face Macedonia. The latter's strong start – losing narrowly in Croatia and then perhaps deserving more than a draw at Hampden – has further enhanced the feeling that this is a group with no real weak link. Led by the talented Goran Pandev, Macedonia begin their home campaign this evening from a relatively strong position, although they will be fully tested by a Croatian side buoyed by their draw in Brussels and boasting in Mario Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic two of Europe's most in-form strikers.

A pair of draws, combined with a Scotland victory in Cardiff, would surely be Craig Levein's preference.

Taken from the Herald

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