Soccer

Belgium coach warns players to start for club

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BRUSSELS (AP)

Belgium coach Marc Wilmots has a clear warning for his players after two stunning home losses in a week: Make sure you play regularly for your club, or miss out on the World Cup.

After Japan outran and outwitted Belgium for a 3-2 victory in a friendly late Tuesday, Wilmots believed a lack of match fitness among some regular starters contributed.

Kevin De Bruyne was outstanding for the Red Devils during their qualifying campaign, but has been a shadow of his former self since Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho sidelined him for English Premier League games.

''We first have to settle the problem that players play for their club,'' Wilmots said.

Among Belgium's best players, Daniel Van Buyten is often on the bench for Bayern Munich, Toby Alderweireld is not a regular at Atletico Madrid, and neither are Moussa Dembele at Tottenham or Thomas Vermaelen at Arsenal.

That is why Wilmots is already eagerly looking at the winter transfer window to see where some of his best men might end up. ''December and January will be important even though I have little impact on it,'' he said.

In theory, Belgium could be better off with players who perform regularly at low-level clubs than stars who are warming the benches of big clubs.

''We will be dependent on the choice of players, who have to play for their club to get match rhythm,'' Wilmots said. ''Otherwise life would be too good to be true.''

With Alderweireld, Van Buyten, Vermaelen and Dembele starting against Japan, Belgium too often looked slow in defense and could not match the agility of the Japanese, many of whom play for lower clubs in big leagues or in the J-League.

If the problem was less evident in a 2-0 loss to Colombia last Thursday, it stood out five days later.

''The rhythm of a couple of players that no longer play (regularly) - with two matches in five days that is immediately obvious,'' Wilmots said.

During a sterling qualifying campaign, Belgium rose to No. 5 in the FIFA rankings but after the two losses, it risks falling outside the top 10.

''We have quality, but quality needs match rhythm. You need matches, minutes of play,'' Wilmots said. ''If you don't play, and sit in the stands, it becomes difficult.''

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Follow Raf Casert on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert

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