Eden Hazard-led Belgium well poised to take tournament by scruff of its neck, end long wait for trophy-Sports News , Justnewsday
Just like Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal four years back, this Belgian side is perfectly poised to take the Euros by the scruff of its neck and prove their mettle, once and for all.
Unbridled expectations, a golden generation of footballers, and falling at the penultimate hurdle – a familiar script played itself out for the Belgian national football team the last time they took the field in an international tournament. The third-place finishers of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the highest-ranked men’s football team on the planet return to the scene of their last heartbreak in Saint Petersburg to begin their European Championship campaign against Russia, as they seek to finally transform their glittering squad into golden.
Drawn in Group B comprising of Russia, Denmark and Finland, Les Diables Rouges are clear favourites to top their group and set themselves up for a favourable run in the knockouts. But it is in the latter stages where they have invariably come up short in their past endeavours. Be it the dynamic squad of the 1986 FIFA World Cup which boasted of the likes of Jan Ceulemans, Enzo Scifo, Jean-Marie Pfaff and Eric Gerets that was dispatched off by Diego Maradona’s Argentina in the semi-finals or Marc Wilmot’s vibrant starlets of 2016. who were undone by a masterclass from Chris Coleman’s Wales in the European Championship quarter-finals, Belgium must learn from their previous mistakes.
Roberto Martinez was anything but an inspired choice when the Belgian football federation decided to put an end to Wilmot’s tenure, but the former-Wigan boss has coped pretty well with the hardships in his path, formulating a successful plan to get the best out of the absolute jewels in his ranks. Ten out of ten wins in the qualifiers with the most goals scored (40) and alongside Turkey, the least conceded (3), Belgium are in a rich vein of form with just the one defeat in the last two calendar years.
Belgium arguably have the most settled starting line-up among all the 24 participating nations this summer, slotting in a 3-4-3 formation which has provided them with adequate balance against all calibres of opposition. Romelu Lukaku is coming off a stellar Serie A season – the fearless striker at the peak of his game is Belgium’s most potent attacking threat, conjuring up and finishing goalscoring chances at his own will. With sixty international strikes, the Inter Milan man leads the line with elan, always in the right position to inflict damage.
The last time the Red Devils were in Russia, their captain Eden Hazard was operating at an elite level, his magnificent performance against Brazil in the quarter-finals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup heralded as one of the starring displays of individual showmanship in a team game. Since then, injuries have taken a toll on the Real Madrid playmaker, but Martinez is hoping the relaxed atmosphere of his national squad would allow the usually unperturbed Belgian to put his struggles of the last two seasons behind.
“I am convinced we will see the best Eden Hazard at the Euros. Eden has always been performing well for us and he plays an important role – he never disappoints. I have seen a hungry Eden over the last few weeks. He’s smiling again. He hasn’t played a lot, but that can be an advantage too. He will join the squad as a new, young player,” Martinez insisted.
The most crucial cog in the Belgian wheel, however, is Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne, whose double facial fracture in the UEFA Champions League final almost dealt a fatal blow to Belgium’s chances. Technical astuteness has always been integral to the DNA of Belgian midfielders, but even by those lofty standards, de Bruyne’s ability to dictate play is impeccable. He has often partnered with Axel Witsel, who is tasked with protecting the Belgian backline but the Borussia Dortmund player’s lack of fitness could see Leander Dendoncker or Youri Tielemans as alternatives. The latter is in the form of his life, but could be seen as a riskier option due to his penchant to drive forward with the ball. It may not make a difference in the initial games, but Martinez will require Witsel’s experience should Belgium wish to go all the way.
An ageing backline of Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen just ahead of the towering Thibaut Courtois is probably the weakest link considering their advanced years and the lack of able replacements in case of injuries or suspensions. Yet the continuous upward evolution of Martinez’s side means Belgium’s probability for success this year is colossal.
Just like Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal four years back, this Belgian side is perfectly poised to take the Euros by the scruff of its neck and prove their mettle, once and for all. While clubs from all divisions of Belgian football continue to sprout talents for the bigger European powers to bolster their ranks with, the oodles of talent the current squad possesses in a combined fashion may take another decade to arrive. With neither of their players in prime getting any younger and in the absence of mercurial breakthroughs in the attacking department, the likes of Hazard, Lukaku, de Bruyne and Mertens are running out of time to cement their legacy.
Football is a significant aspect in the Low Country of eleven million – a symbol of unity and positivity in a country which has distinctive regions identifying themselves by the language they speak and the political connotations which come with it. A nation ravaged because of deaths due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Red Devils offer the general population with a glimpse of hope and nationalistic pride; and a successful Euro campaign may go a long way to alleviate the sombre mood of the nation.
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