The Euro 2020 quarter-finals beckon and Belgium take on Italy at the Allianz Arena, staying on course to finally win a major international trophy for their golden generation of players.
After being undone by the single most spectacular moment of magic at Euro 2016 (Hal Robson-Kanu, take a bow) Belgium sacked Marc Wilmots and brought in Roberto Martinez, and under the Catalan coach they’ve gone from strength-to-strength.
An impressive showing at the 2018 World Cup saw them finish third, and they will be determined to go one better this time around. Their squad is loaded with superstar talent and they have phenomenal goalscoring power on their side that could lift them to glory in the knockout stages.
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The best players Belgium are bringing to Euro 2020:
Goalkeeper: Thibaut Courtois
Thibaut Courtois was one of the best goalkeepers at the 2018 World Cup, winning the Golden Glove and being named FIFA’s The Best Goalkeeper of that year. A move to Real Madrid had him struggling for a while but he found his rhythm last year, getting six clean clean sheets and conceding just four goals in Los Blancos’ defensive march to winning La Liga. He’s carried that form over to 2020/21 and will has formed a near impenetrable barrier at the back for Belgium, keeping two clean sheets in three group games, and recently denying Portugal in the last-16.
Defence: Toby Alderweireld
Toby Alderweireld may have been separated from longtime pal Jan Vertonghen at club level but he remains Belgium’s best defender. A tall, commanding figure with exceptional passing range, his ability to organise a defence is still top-level. He’s not what he was athletically, but pairing him with two dynamic defenders like Vertonghen and Jason Denayer has provided him all the cover he needs to lead from the back.
Midfield: Kevin De Bruyne
You could make a case that Kevin De Bruyne plays in the forward line for Belgium but we’re going to include him as a midfielder because it gives us a chance to wax lyrical about how sublime he is. The Belgian is right-footed but possesses great shooting technique on his left, and his ability to let fly from range often leads to opponents closing him down, opening up angles for passes. His crossing is absolutely deadly, his through balls are utterly ridiculous and he is one of the most creative players on the planet. From 2017-2021 Premier League player has completed more through balls (36) or picked up more assists from open play (43). He’s a phenom, and made up for his late start to the tournament with two assists and one goal in 182 minutes.
Attack: Romelu Lukaku
Romelu Lukaku has always been bristling with talent but moving to Inter Milan has seen him explode as never before. After sorting his nutrition out and being drilled by Antonio Conte every day in training, Lukaku has become stone cold world-class. He broke Ronaldo’s scoring record in his debut Inter season and continues to go from strength to strength, helping the Nerazzurri to the league title. At 28, he’s in the prime of his career and with the likes of De Bruyne at his back he could well fire the Belgians all the way to winning Euro 2020, already on three goals for the tournament.
Martinez update on Hazard and De Bruyne injuries
Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne both withdrew through injury in the 1-0 win over Portugal, with the former limping off with a hamstring issue and the latter sustaining a knock to his ankle. Neither player is expected to be fully fit for the quarter-finals, but Martinez confirmed they are monitoring the duo closely.
“They didn’t take any major damage and stay with the team,” said Martinez.
“Our main concern at the moment is time, as the match against Italy is coming up quickly. Kevin and Eden probably won’t get 100% fit, but we will use every day to get them as fit as possible.
“In the event that we go through, they will be ready for the semi-final anyway.”
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Hazard admits he’ll “never be the same”
Amid all the excitement in the build up to Euro 2020, there were some concerns around Hazard’s fitness and whether we would see the best of him for Belgium. The 30-year-old had been one of the best players in the world while playing in the Premier League for Chelsea, but his career has hit a wall since leaving for Real Madrid in 2019.
A dream move quickly turned into a nightmare as Hazard suffered various injury problems that have seriously cut his game time in Madrid, with the Belgian playing just 43 times across two season so far. Hazard was nursing injury issues going into the tournament, but was still picked and backed by Martinez to perform when Belgium needed him too.
However, he started just one of Belgium’s three Group B games, coming off the bench against Russia and Denmark, and recently sustained yet another injury after being handed his second start of the tournament against Portugal.
Hazard himself has admitted he will never be able to reach his Chelsea levels again due to breaking his ankle three times.
“I never doubted my qualities, but whether I would be 100% fit for the European Championship was going to be a question,” Hazard told reporters before Belgium’s 2-0 win over Finland.
“I broke my ankle three times, it will never be the same as 10 years ago. But I know that when I am in shape, that I can prove myself on the field and that’s what I’m working on now.
“I’m not 100% yet, but I’m ready to start. But that was the plan, to bring me along gradually.
“It’s especially important to be completely fit in the knockout phase. Then I have to be in top shape.”
The head coach:
Roberto Martinez is a coach most famous for spells coaching Swansea City, Wigan Athletic and Everton. That doesn’t sound like ideal training to coaching the star-studded Belgium side but you have to remember how good the football played by his sides was. He started the revolution at Swansea that saw them play some of the smoothest passing football in the Premier League.
With comparatively little resources compared to other teams, and constantly having to sell his best players every summer, Martinez would routinely have Wigan going on long winning runs full of fabulous football to ensure their survival every year. And the one time they did get relegated it’s because he dedicated focus to winning the FA Cup. And guess what? He won the FA Cup!
At Everton he developed a fantastic relationship with Romelu Lukaku, greatly expanding the Belgian’s skill-set and turning him into a genuinely top-class forward. An avowed Cruyffist, his style of play has drawn admiration from high places, including Barcelona themselves. However, he remains committed to Belgium and has led them to the top of the FIFA World Rankings where they have reigned since 2018. Now at Euro 2020, Martinez will be looking to translate that rankings dominance into a trophy.
Martinez has been incredibly consistent in his use of 3-4-2-1 while Belgium coach. And you can see why, looking at the squad presented to him where he has an abundance of good centre-backs and one good full-back and even then Thomas Meunier is really a wing-back. So he goes with a back three to maximise his assets.
Courtois keeps goal, obviously. And ahead of him veterans Alderweireld and Vertonghen are likely to flank Denayer, who is growing into a defender worthy of comparison with his team-mates beyond his ability to cover for their athletic deficiencies. Interestingly, though, Thomas Vermaelen started against Portugal and having kept a clean sheet, will likely retain his starting berth for Italy.
Youri Tielemans has become such a dominant midfielder that he has one of the two pivot spots and is responsible for supporting the defence, while Kevin De Bruyne works his magic despite the late start to the competition. Out wide the wing-backs are responsible for the side’s width in both attack and defence and these spots are usually filled by Meunier and Thorgan Hazard.
When Belgium take to the pitch, De Bruyne essentially leaves Tielemans on his own and links up with that ferocious attack, regardless of who Martinez picks. But, he started further forward against Portugal, with Axel Witsel partnering Tielemans and holding fort in the middle third, with Eden Hazard given the nod in attack.
Lukaku leads the line, showing off the full repertoire of skills that has seen him take Serie A by storm. The Inter No. 9 naturally excels at making runs off the ball to be on the end of passes and crosses the Belgian side produce, but has really improved at his hold-up play and ability to link with his team-mates, making him one of the most deadly strikers at Euro 2020.
The youthful nature of Belgium’s squad for the 2018 World Cup means that there won’t actually be many differences between then and now. The biggest difference is, of course, the absence of Vincent Kompany in defence as he retired earlier this season to become full-time manager for Anderlecht. Nacer Chadli is also unlikely to start from the team that beat England to finish third at the World Cup, though the Istanbul Basaksehir midfielder is part of the Euro 2020 squad.
The form guide
Euro 2020 Qualifying: WWWWWWWWWW
Belgium absolutely blitzed their qualifying group for Euro 2020, winning every single game. Admittedly it wasn’t the toughest group but they made light work of it. Forty goals scored, only three conceded and every match won by at least two. They were flying.
Recent fixtures: WWWWWDWDW
Belgium’s more recent fixtures have also been mostly stories of great success. The Red Devils have won six of their eight games, drawing with Czech Republic in World Cup qualifying (sandwiched by 3-1 and 8-0 victories over Wales and Belarus respectively) and Greece in a pre-tournament friendly. But since then, they have put together a run of five straight victories including their perfect record in Group B and that last-16 triumph over Portugal.
Chances of winning:
Belgium went into Euro 2020 as one of the favourites, and when you look at their form over the last few years you can totally see why.. They’ve lost just four times since Martinez was appointed in 2016, and with a sublime squad absolutely overflowing with goal power and defensive solidity, it’s difficult to see someone stopping them at Euro 2020.
However, Belgium’s odds have been lengthened by their potential route to the final. Having already taken down Euro 2016 winners Portugal, they now face a daunting tie against Italy, before clashing with one of Switzerland or Spain in the semis.
(Odds in this article are correct at the time of writing. 18+ only, BeGambleAware.org)
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