Witsel could be key man in Belgium World Cup midfield Axe-is
In a side where competition for places is steep, particularly in a midfield blessed with an abundance of versatile talent, Axel Witsel is being kept on his toes by Belgium boss Marc Wilmots.
Odds-on at 8/11, the Red Devils are pool favourites, and with five goals in 49 caps, Witsel will be eyeing up a starting spot.
A talented anchorman currently plying his trade in Russia for Zenit St Petersberg, the former Benfica boy will be hoping to secure a central spot that allows him to exploit all his attributes, shielding defence but also supporting attacks from deep.
Beginning his career at Standard Liege, and voted best player in the Belgian league in 2008, Witsel’s status was soured after a horror tackle on Anderlecht’s Marcin Wasilewski. The Polish right back, now at Leicester City, suffered a broken leg, and the Belgian received an eight match domestic ban, but the fall-out was far from over.
Eventually the midfielder of Martinique descent secured a transfer to the Portuguese giants Benfica, but after just one successful season, Russian big-spenders Zenit stormed in and secured his talents for a reported fee of around £32m.
For Witsel, the pressure has been on to justify his transfer fee, but after two years he has become a key component in the Russian side, chipping in with 8 goals in 45 league appearances.
There has always been rumoured interest from Premier League teams, and although the Belgian is contracted until 2017, an impressive string of performances in Brazil may tempt one of the top six sides into releasing him from Russia. Manchester United are always a muted destination, with Liverpool and Arsenal also previously options.
In Marc Wilmots’ current squad, the effective but also elegant 25-year-old faces competition from Porto star Steven Defour, and Premier League duo Mousa Dembele and Marouane ‘elbows’ Fellaini. The latter trio began the Red Devils last warm-up game together, in a 1-0 victory over Tunisia, but Witsel, 11/4 to score anytime, could get the nod to start against Algeria, in a role still very much up for grabs.
Fellaini, despite an indifferent campaign with Manchester United, continues to be a favourite of Wilmotd. However, Witsel would provide a more cultured option, without losing any of the muscle.
Belgium, odds-on at 4/9 to win, or, 7/2 to draw against the unfancied African side, will know it is important to take maximum points in their first outing, as Russia face South Korea in the opposing Group H fixture. They go into the game in great form, having won all three of their last their World Cup warm games.