Every Monday for eternity, The Post will publish a soccer package in the Sports print edition. Online, I will re-purpose it for the Insider on Monday afternoon. Some items are geared toward casual sports fans who read the print edition and do not necessarily follow the blog. Some material has appeared on the blog previously. Atletico Madrid shaking up La Liga was the prime topic two weeks ago. Last week, U.S. players Michael Parkhurst and Maurice Edu took center stage. Today’s work:
As if Belgium did not have enough blossoming talent ahead of the World Cup, Manchester United’s Adnan Januzaj sorted through a stack of international options before committing to the Brazilian-bound Belgians last week.
With a golden generation of players, the Red Devils were already a fashionable pick for World Cup glory when Janujaz injected himself into the mix.
They will arrive in Brazil with some of the sport’s finest young players: Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Everton’s Rumelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas, Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini, Wolfsburg’s Kevin De Bruyne and Atletico Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois are between ages 20 and 26. If not for an Achilles’ tendon injury, Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke, 23, would have joined them.
With Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany and Bayern Munich’s Daniel Van Buyten providing backline experience, Belgium will face the highest expectations since reaching the 1986 semifinals in Mexico. Among the tournament’s eight seeded teams, the Red Devils are heavily favored to win Group H ahead of Russia, South Korea and Algeria.
Januzaj, a 19-year-old winger, was eligible to represent Belgium (birthplace), Albania (mother’s roots), Turkey (grandparents), Serbia (his parents’ Yugoslavian past) or Kosovo (father’s ethnic roots). Kosovo, a disputed Serbian territory, fields a team but cannot compete in official competition.
One of the few bright spots during Manchester United’s season-long slide, Januzaj has appeared in 24 of 35 Premier League matches with 13 starts and four goals. He figures to feature prominently in United’s rebuilding efforts under a new manager after the summer break.
Whether Belgium boss Marc Wilmots brings him to Brazil is not clear. It was Wilmots who broke the news on Twitter that Januzaj had pledged allegiance to Belgium. However, at this late stage of World Cup preparations and with a stable of stars brightening the roster, Januzaj’s introduction may have to wait until qualifying for the 2016 European Championship begins this fall.
“It’s good for Belgium because he is a very good player,” Mirallas told RTBF, a Belgian TV outlet. “He may not deserve to come to Brazil with us because he does not know the group and he has not played much for United in recent months. In his position, there are some very good players. For him, Euro 2016 is within reach.”
With or without Januzaj, Belgium promises to offer an entertaining brand of soccer in its first World Cup appearance since 2002. In a six-team qualifying group, the Red Devils went 8-0-2 with an 18-4 scoring difference to pull away from chief contenders Serbia and Croatia.
“We’ve awoken the entire nation through our football,” Van Buyken told FIFA.com. “We’re a small country, but we’ve got a lot of potential.”
Days until World Cup: 45
*With three of the 12 World Cup stadiums unfinished, including the venue in Sao Paulo that will host the June 12 opener, “we don’t know the exact number of seats in the stadiums,” FIFA marketing director Thierry Weil admitted. Consequently, soccer’s governing body has had to hold back 7 percent of tickets until capacities are verified. Ticket sales are slated to resume in mid-May.
*While Jozy Altidore, Aron Johannsson and Eddie Johnson, the U.S. squad’s primary forwards, are stuck in scoring slumps of varying degree, Clint Dempsey and Terrence Boyd have found their form ahead of World Cup training camp at Stanford in two weeks. Dempsey has posted seven goals and two assists in his past four matches with the Seattle Sounders and Boyd, making a case to get off Juergen Klinsmann’s roster bubble, has recorded back-to-back two-goal games for Rapid Vienna.
*By late Wednesday afternoon, we will know who will play for the UEFA Champions League trophy May 24 in Lisbon. Bayern Munich, the reigning champion, faces a 1-0 deficit against Real Madrid when the superpowers meet again Tuesday in Germany. Chelsea claimed a victory of drab sorts at Atletico Madrid (a 0-0 draw) but will be undermanned for Wednesday’s second leg in London because of injuries to Peter Cech and John Terry and suspensions to Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel. Fox Sports 1 will carry both matches, starting at 2:45 p.m. each day.
*The U.S. women’s league and men’s lower divisions typically attract small crowds. But on Saturday, the Portland Thorns of the NWSL picked up where they left off at the box office last season by drawing 14,124 for their home opener, while the Sacramento Republic, a men’s third-tier expansion club with MLS ambitions, welcomed 20,231 for their inaugural home appearance – a league record and more than all but one of the seven MLS matches Saturday.
“I can’t nutmeg anyone for at least 8 months. But I’ll get through it.”
— Washington Spirit forward Tiffany Weimer, upon learning she’ll miss the NWSL season with a torn ACL