Belgium coach Georges Leekens said that his young team had ‘the tools to succeed in the future, if not now’ with just two games left in the quest for Euro 2012 finals qualification.
Two back-to-back defeats at the beginning of the campaign was always going to make it a tough task to get out of the group. With an away draw to Azerbaijan, that crucial Witsel penalty miss against Turkey and a 4-4 home draw with Austria who were down to ten men for over 20 minutes, it was Turkey who secured a playoff place as Germany were the comfortable winners of Group A.
Leekens was probably right about the current crop of players at his disposal. The squad is brimming with exceptional players from the promising young keeper Thibault Courtois, Manchester City’s defensive rock Vincent Kompany, to Marouane Fellaini and the hottest property in football right now Eden Hazard. Belgium won’t be the only nation whose pool of exciting talent will be trying to fill the time before pre-season training starts instead of flying out to Poland and Ukraine, but Leekens must feel deep down inside that this squad was capable of making it through. The focus will be on qualification for the 2014 World Cup, but as a member of the elegant defenders appreciation society, I for one will be disappointed not to see ‘Captain Vertonghen’ in action this summer.
Tonight, the centre back secured another Eredivisie title under a manager who knows all about what it takes to play at the heart of some of the greatest sides in recent football history. Playing alongside his Belgian counterpart Toby Alderweireld, Vertonghen has been the usual defensive rock for Frank de Boer’s side this season but it’s his ability to initiate attacks from the back and seamlessly drop into other positions all over the pitch that heralds him as such a special player.
Vertonghen first came to my attention at the 2007 Under-21 European Championships in Holland where the likes of Royston Drenthe, Manuel De Costa and Leroy Lita were the stars of the show and Vertonghen was amongst those who impressed. But it wasn’t his presence in the Belgian rear guard that stood out, or the fact that the defender wore the number 10 shirt. It was the accuracy of his long-range passing and confidence in his passing ability that would have had scouts casting an envious eye at the Ajax academy player. Belgium made it to the semi-finals stages in that tournament, the furthest they had ever been in the under-21 championships, and while Vertonghen has since made the successful transition to the senior side, the Red Devils have continued to falter at the qualification stages.
So Vertonghen won’t be in the biggest shop window outside of the World Cup this summer, but then there is already a whole host of clubs who have the Belgian’s card marked. Where does his future lie? All signs point to the Premier League with a potential reunion with his Belgian counterpart and fellow Ajax graduate Thomas Vermaelen a real possibility. Roberto Mancini might even consider tempting Vertonghen to join his international centre back partner Kompany at Manchester City, but as Frank de Boer responded to a reporter, ‘Why not Barcelona?’
As Guardiola looks set to depart and Tito Vilanova inherits a centre back pairing, one of which has been hampered by injuries in recent seasons and the other who appears to have lost his focus, Vertonghen would be a perfect fit. He’s an excellent defender first and foremost with great positioning sense and a confidence on the ball that makes him the perfect blend of Pique and Puyol’s best attributes.
As the 25-year old Vertonghen gets his hands on another Eredivisie league title, he’ll be trying to put aside thoughts that his football season is over, as his Dutch teammates prepare for Euro 2012. Agent Mustapha Nakhli will no doubt be hoping to continue Vertonghen’s football education by securing him a move that ensures a player of his tremendous quality is given the best opportunity to showcase his talents on the greatest football stage.