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Pressure on Belgium to make their golden generation count

·4-min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

The measurement that most outlines the scale of Belgium’s collective strengths is the shrugging of shoulders around Eden Hazard. Sure, it would be quite the welcome thing if he rediscovered his unplayable self, sparked the team, and scorched the tournament’s defenders. But, if he doesn’t, see: Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.

They are the headliners, but when a supporting act features the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Dries Mertens, Axel Witsel with Youri Tielemans not even guaranteed a starting spot, it’s simple to see why opponents view Roberto Martinez’s men as such a threat.

They coasted through qualifying, winning all 10 of their games - only the seventh nation in history to make the Euros with a 100 per cent record - while scoring 40 and being breached a paltry three times in a group that contained Russia and Scotland.

Shed of the experience of retired trio Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini and Mousa Dembele, Belgium are still a well-balanced unit that can bank on a clarity of vision and tactical execution.

They have traditionally lined up in a 3-4-3 and the starting line-up is easy to sketch when everyone is available. De Bruyne underwent a successful operation to the left eye socket he fractured in a tussle with Antonio Rudiger during the Champions League final and may only sit out the opening match.

"I would say at the moment I’m not counting on Kevin to be in the first game, but if that changes it will be because he adapts well to his own programme,” Martinez said.

“But we’re not going to push any sort of timeline into Kevin’s recovery. [He] is here, is mentally really enthusiastic and excited, and we need to take every 24 hours in real focus.”

Witsel then is currently the sole injury concern as he attempts to shake off an Achilles problem, but it’s a major one given the structure he offers in midfield.

Bar that worry, it’s pretty much standard procedure for Martinez’s charges except the pressure has been escalated.

Following a third-placed finish at the 2018 World Cup, the Euros and next year’s global tournament represent the last opportunity for this golden generation to lift major silverware.

De Bruyne and Lukaku are in their prime, among the undisputed best in their positions across the game. Mertens and Vertonghen are past their peak and the Qatar showpiece might be too much in the distance for the pair.

Hazard’s most efficient spells look to be in the rear-view mirror in light of his injury issues, and at 30, the explosiveness is not going to endure.

This doesn’t only feel like a nearing to a conclusion for a generation, but the manager too. He has a year left on his contract and The Independent has been informed that Martinez has fielded several club approaches this summer - three from the Premier League but did not want to commit ahead of the tournament.

He has never hidden that the buzz of working with a group every day still appeals to him and having steered Belgium to the world’s No 1 ranked team for close to three years, a new challenge seems the natural evolution.

The Euros has built into a critical point for the next chapter of the nation’s story: do they crown a proud era with silverware, or will a ridiculous pool of talent be left looking back with ‘what ifs?’.

There is an overwhelming confidence stemming from the team, born out of their surety in roles and approach.

It has been interesting to see Martinez reference how much of his team feel at home at Wembley (Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld called it home with Spurs for a while, Tielemans scored the FA Cup winner there, Courtois and Hazard lifted the same trophy at the ground, while Lukaku has some fond memories), which hosts the semi-finals and the climax of the competition.

The thinking is very big and very far, as it should be. There may not be other time for all the ingredients to combine so well for Belgium’s golden generation to turn their consistency into champions currency.

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