Eden Hazard is "medically perfect" but there is concern about the Belgium star's injury problems, according to national team boss Roberto Martinez.

The playmaker has endured a miserable time in Spain due to persistent physical issues since his move from Chelsea in 2019 for a reported €100million (£88.5m).

Hazard has only completed four matches for Los Blancos in all competitions, scoring just five goals in 51 appearances in total, as patience over his lack of availability runs thin among fans and local media.

The 30-year-old impressed in the first half of the Nations League semi-final against France last week, as Belgium took a 2-0 lead into half-time, but he was taken off in the 74th minute as Martinez's side went on to lose 3-2 to the world champions.

Hazard sat out the 2-1 third-place play-off defeat to Italy, Martinez saying he was suffering from "muscle fatigue" but adding he did not know how long the former Lille star would need to recover.

Indeed, Martinez has found it difficult to determine why Hazard, a player he believes can still challenge for the Ballon d'Or, has endured so many injuries since his move to Spain two years ago.

"It's certainly true that Eden is not now in a physical situation to be at 100 per cent for 90 minutes," Martinez told El Larguero. "What's important now is to have patience, to work well and try to get Hazard, bit by bit, to get back to that level he's always had.

 

"His situation in Spain is very atypical. He found a situation that's new for him, because he was never injured and suddenly finds himself over the course of two years with no explanation for so many injuries.

"We're all worried and I'm sure Real Madrid are as well. He's a player who needs the ball, needs to dribble, and in order to reach his maximum physical level, he needs to play games.

"What I've seen is that he is medically perfect. The first 45 minutes [against France] were really enjoyable. We hope that, between Real Madrid and the national team, we can help him so he can get the minutes he needs. If he's at the level of those 45 minutes against France, I'm sure he'll bring a lot of success to Belgium, but especially to Real Madrid."

Martinez's future has come under scrutiny in recent weeks following reports he was a prime candidate to take over from Ronald Koeman as Barcelona head coach.

That was until Barca president Joan Laporta insisted he would give Koeman time to turn things around amid a run of just two wins in eight matches in all competitions.

Regardless, Martinez says he has not spoken to the club and has not yet decided if he will commit to the Belgium job beyond next year's World Cup in Qatar.

"It's been a difficult period because it seems like you don't want to answer, but the truth is they've not had any contact with me," he said.

"You know how rumours with coaches work. It's nothing more than an anecdote that helps me start the day with a smile.

"I still haven't decided [if I will stay after the World Cup]. Whenever I talk about my future, I don't usually clarify it.

"We're continuing a really beautiful, ambitious project and you have to think day by day. I've learned that the emotional side of a national team is on another level to what happens at a club."

Roberto Martinez retains the full support of the Royal Belgian Football Association (RBFA) but has been told lessons must be learned from Belgium's disappointing Nations League Finals campaign.

Belgium let a two-goal half-time lead slip in last week's 3-2 defeat to France in the semi-finals and followed that up with a 2-1 loss at the hands of European champions Italy in the third-place play-off on Sunday.

The Red Devils are on course to finish the year as FIFA's top-ranked national side for the fourth time running, but their 'golden generation' of players have still yet to win any silverware.

Martinez could only guide Belgium to the quarter-finals of Euro 2020, having previously finished third at the 2018 World Cup (they were also beaten by Italy and France respectively in those tournaments), but the Spaniard – who has been strongly linked with replacing Ronald Koeman at Barcelona – is not at risk of being sacked.

However, RBFA chief executive Peter Bossaert accepts that the second-half display against France cannot be repeated if Belgium are to have any chance of ending their wait for a trophy.

"Roberto is still the right man for the job," Bossaert told La Derniere Heure. "We still support him 100 per cent. But we have to learn from the game against France, in which we played our best half of football and worst half in a long time.

"I'm going to ask some people for advice, but I'm not going to create a commission or a committee. I also don't want too many people giving their opinions because then there will be too many differing opinions."

Belgium are top of their World Cup 2022 qualifying group with 16 points from six matches and return to action on November 13 with a home game against Estonia.

Martinez agrees with Bossaert that Belgium were not good enough during the Nations League Finals, even if there were some positives to take away from the mini-tournament.

"We cannot concede five goals in two games and we cannot concede two penalties, even if the decisions were not correct," he said.

"But the way we reacted to going behind against Italy, after what had happened in the France game, I thought the team had a real strong personality to keep playing."

Kevin De Bruyne insists it is not realistic for Belgium to compete with heavyweights such as France and Italy after finishing fourth in the Nations League.

The Red Devils let a two-goal lead slip to lose 3-2 to France in last week's semi-final and were beaten 2-1 by Italy in Sunday's third-place play-off.

Despite being on course to end the year as FIFA's top-ranked national side for a fourth time running, De Bruyne has called for some perspective on the back of a difficult week.

"We did well at times against some top teams and had many new faces who did more than a decent job today," he told Belgian publication HLN.

"It's good experience for them to be able to play against opponents of this calibre, but unfortunately we lost twice. 

"With all due respect, playing against Estonia is not the same thing and these challenges are necessary for us to grow, both as individuals and as a team.

"We are 'just' Belgium. It's a new generation and we were missing Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard against Italy, so we have to be realistic about the team we have. 

"Italy, France and Spain have 22 top players to choose from and we do not."

Belgium's 'Golden Generation' of players have yet to win a major trophy, most recently finishing third at the 2018 World Cup, either side of quarter-final exits at Euro 2016 and 2020.

Roberto Martinez's side are top of their World Cup 2022 qualifying group with 16 points from six matches and return to action on November 13 with a home game against Estonia.

Barcelona-linked Martinez has acknowledged that his side have to improve when they take on some of the world's bigger nations.

"We cannot concede five goals in two games and we cannot concede two penalties, even if the decisions were not correct," he said following the loss to Italy.

"But the way we reacted to going behind against Italy, after what had happened in the France game, I thought the team had a real strong personality to keep playing."

Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois criticised UEFA and FIFA for their attitude towards player welfare due to the number of fixtures being crammed into the calendar.

The 29-year-old was speaking on the back of his national side's 2-1 loss to Italy in the Nations League third-place play-off on Sunday.

Both teams rested a number of players for the match at the Allianz Stadium, with Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard absent for Belgium due to muscular problems.

Courtois also played a full part in the semi-final defeat to France three days earlier and has questioned why his side had to face Italy in what he felt was a meaningless match.

"This game is just a money game and we have to be honest about it," he said in his post-match interview. "We just play it because for UEFA it's extra money.

"Look at how much both teams changed [line-ups]. If both teams would have been in the final, there would have been other players in the final playing.

"This just shows that we play too many games."

The international calendar is potentially facing further changes, with a biennial World Cup being proposed by FIFA's head of global development Arsene Wenger.

UEFA has already made clear it is against the plans and Courtois has added his name to a growing list of dissenters.

"They [UEFA] made an extra trophy [the Europa Conference League]… it is always the same," he said.

"They can be angry about other teams wanting a Super League, but they don't care about the players, they just care about their pockets.

"It's a bad thing that players are not spoken about. And now you hear about a European Championship and a World Cup every year, when will we get a rest? Never."

Courtois added: "In the end top players will get injured and injured and injured. It's something that should be much better and much more taken care of.

"We are not robots! It's just more and more games and less rest for us and nobody cares about us.

"Next year we have a World Cup in November, we have to play until the latter stages of June again. We will get injured! Nobody cares about the players anymore.

"Three weeks of holiday is not enough for players to be able to continue for 12 months at the highest level. If we never say anything it [will be] always the same."

Roberto Martinez said it is "difficult for me to talk about rumours" after addressing speculation he could replace Ronald Koeman as Barcelona boss.

Martinez saw his Belgium side defeated 2-1 by Italy in Sunday's Nations League third-place play-off, having lost to the Azzurri by the same scoreline in the quarter-finals of Euro 2020.

Speaking after Sunday's game, Martinez was asked about links to Barca, with Koeman's position under threat after an indifferent start in LaLiga this season and back-to-back 3-0 defeats to Bayern Munich and Benfica in the Champions League.

"It's difficult for me to talk about rumours. I've been working with this team for five years and am fully concentrated on this role," Martinez told reporters post-match.

"We came to the Nations League to win it and did not manage that, but now we prepare for World Cup qualifying. I have nothing more to add."

Nicolo Barella's goal and a Domenico Berardi penalty were enough for Italy to defeat Belgium, for whom Charles De Ketelaere's first international goal was not enough to mount a comeback.

It marked the first time Belgium have suffered back-to-back competitive defeats since September 2010 and Martinez, whose team let a two-goal lead slip against France in the semi-final on Thursday, was left frustrated.

"The penalty was a debatable decision and one that frankly I do not agree with. I try to be respectful with the referee, but you need experience at a tournament of this level," he added.

"We are very frustrated by VAR intervening against France, saying referees ought to be given responsibility for their decisions, but why didn't the VAR intervene today when the referee needed help? The frustration grew as the game wore on."

Substitute Kevin de Bruyne, who assisted De Ketelaere's late consolation goal, was also disappointed but felt the experience has been good for some of Belgium's younger squad members.

"We did well at times against some top teams and had many new faces who did more than a decent job today," De Bruyne told Belgian outlet HNL.

"It's a good experience for them to be able to play against opponents of this calibre, but unfortunately we lost twice.

"With all due respect, playing against Estonia is not the same thing and these challenges are necessary for us to grow, both as individuals and as a team.

"We are 'just' Belgium. It's a new generation, we were missing Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard today, so we have to be realistic about the team we have.

"Italy, France and Spain have 22 top players to choose from and we do not."

Nicolo Barella and Domenico Berardi struck in the second half as Italy defeated Belgium 2-1 to claim third place at the 2021 Nations League Finals on Sunday.

Roberto Martinez's side, who let slip a two-goal lead to lose to France on Thursday, were denied twice by the woodwork either side of Barella's volley, which gave the reigning European champions the lead just a minute after the interval.

Berardi then scored from the penalty spot to add a second for Roberto Mancini's team, who had their record 37-game unbeaten run ended by Spain in Wednesday's semi-final, before Charles de Ketelaere netted a late consolation.

Italy banished any demons after their first competitive loss on home soil since 1999 while Belgium - having faltered in a Euro 2020 quarter-final against the same opponents - may now have to wait until the 2022 World Cup to inflict revenge.

Federico Chiesa blasted the first chance of the contest narrowly over from a tight angle before a deflected effort from Berardi was parried away by Thibaut Courtois.

Toby Alderweireld's near-post header then forced Gianluigi Donnarumma's first save, but the Italy goalkeeper could only stand and watch as Alexis Saelemaekers curled onto the crossbar moments later.

Barella responded by sending a speculative long-range effort over before Chiesa was excellently denied by Courtois' legs on the stroke of half-time.

Courtois, however, was no match for Barella's right-footed volley straight after the break, the midfielder finding the bottom corner to open the scoring.

Michy Batshuayi almost immediately drew Belgium level, his right-footed drive cannoning into the bar, before Timothy Castagne needlessly fouled Chiesa to concede a penalty, one Berardi converted despite Courtois getting a hand to the effort.

Yannick Carrasco struck the right-hand post and while De Ketelaere did roll through Donnarumma's legs to score, Belgium could were unable to find a late leveller.

Belgium's Nations League hopes fell flat on Thursday, but Yannick Carrasco insists the squad still have faith they can achieve glory at the 2022 World Cup.

The world's number one ranked team squandered a two-goal lead as France came back to win 3-2 in their semi-final clash in Turin, Theo Hernandez scoring the crucial fifth goal of a thrilling contest in the 90th minute.

Instead of heading to San Siro to face Spain in the final, Belgium are instead back at the Allianz Stadium on Sunday, going up against European champions Italy in a third-place play-off.

It is the second such match during Roberto Martinez's tenure, the Barcelona-linked coach having previously guided Belgium to the semi-finals of World Cup 2018, where they also fell foul of France.

Belgium defeated England to claim third place in Russia, before reaching the quarter-finals at Euro 2020. Sunday's opponents Italy beat them there.

When asked if Belgium's squad still held belief in their ability to challenge at next year's World Cup in Qatar, Atletico Madrid winger Carrasco turned the tables on the media.

"Do we believe that we can win a prize in Qatar? We always believe in ourselves," he told a news conference.

"But do you still believe in us? Because we don't have that feeling. We know that we have a good team, that we can do something beautiful.

"On Friday, the coach showed what we did well and what we did badly.

"That is necessary to prepare for Qatar. A year is not long with the national team, we will use the match against France to get better."

 

Martinez, meanwhile, said a new cycle had now started for Belgium as they look to build towards the World Cup, which arguably presents the final chance for the Red Devils' 'golden generation' to claim a trophy.

He said: "A new cycle has started, that of preparing for the World Cup.

"Over the past five years we have created a style of play. Multiple players can bring what the team needs but our style of play goes beyond individuals. 

"We have been number one in the world for three years. Of course that is important. We want to remain number one. But our main motivation is to get better. The second half against France showed we are not the finished product."

Belgium will be out for revenge against the Azzurri, aiming to at least end their Nations League campaign on a high. However, they will be without Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, who have both been withdrawn due to what Martinez described as "muscle overload".

"I cannot say," Martinez said when asked if the duo would be fit for their clubs next week. "That is a question for the medical department. But it is definitely about overload and not injury."

Didier Deschamps said he never doubted Kylian Mbappe after his return to form in France's last-gasp win over Belgium in the Nations League semi-finals.

Mbappe scored a penalty as France completed a stunning Nations League comeback in Turin on Thursday, overturning a 2-0 deficit in a 3-2 triumph en route to the final thanks to Theo Hernandez's 90th-minute strike.

All eyes were on Mbappe after revealing he considered taking a break from international football following France's Euro 2020 disappointment.

Mbappe missed the decisive penalty as France sensationally crashed out of Euro 2020 at the hands of Switzerland in the round of 16 but the Paris Saint-Germain star assisted Karim Benzema's goal before equalising with his 69th-minute spot-kick.

Afterwards, France head coach Deschamps hailed Mbappe, who became the youngest player to reach 50 games for Les Bleus (22 years and 291 days), overtaking Benzema (24 years and 240 days).

"Kylian [Mbappe] didn't have any doubts," Deschamps told reporters. "I have always been behind him, I saw his determination. He was full of good intentions during the Euros, he missed the efficiency in the end, but he was injured, he couldn't play the second and third game.

"There are a lot of expectations with Kylian. I've always said this, and it's not to be nice, I know very well France is a lot stronger with Kylian. Today he did it.

"Offensively, in his efforts, the way he is complementary with Benzema and [Antoine] Griezmann has added to that. It's good for France. But I never had any doubts about him.

"It will have been good for him, definitely, on a personal level, but since he arrived at the start of this week, I could sense that he felt that it was an important match for him as well, and all for the better for him and for us."

Hernandez's thunderous long-range winner meant world champions France claimed their first victory after trailing by two or more goals at half-time since May 2012 against Iceland in an international friendly.

Belgium had led 2-0 at the interval thanks to Yannick Carrasco and Romelu Lukaku but France will now meet Spain in Sunday's Nations League showpiece.

"It's the kind of football that we like when we end up on the right side of it," Deschamps said. "It's amazing to go from one emotion into another in a big game like that, against an opponent like that. We were on the wrong side of it this summer, and it hurts.

"It's hard, I put myself in Roberto Martinez's shoes when it comes to the final scoreline, it hurts. But you have to accept it. Much joy and pride, I'm here for that. I've known many great moments, and we're going to have more. Because the quality we have in this side, the spirit, the mentality even if we had to react to the situation. But to be able to turn around a situation like that, I can only be proud of what we've done tonight."

Belgium threw away plenty of their hard work from across the last five years in their Nations League defeat to France, says a frustrated Roberto Martinez.

First-half goals from Yannick Carrasco and Romelu Lukaku had seemingly put Belgium well on their way to facing Spain in Sunday's final, only for Les Bleus to fight back to win 3-2.

Theo Hernandez got the winner in the final minute of normal time, just moments after Lukaku thought he had restored Belgium's lead following Karim Benzema's strike and a Kylian Mbappe penalty.

Yet VAR came to France's aid with an offside call, as they won their first game after trailing by two or more goals at half-time since May 2012 against Iceland in a friendly.

Belgium will return to Turin to face European champions Italy in a third-place play-off this weekend. Martinez, who guided the Red Devils to a semi-final at World Cup 2018 (where they lost to France) and the quarter-finals in Euro 2020, said his side had nobody but themselves to blame.

"We are very disappointed that we could not hold onto the lead," he said in post-match media duties. "We didn't have enough control in the second half. We let France get back into the game.

"When you play against someone like France, they punish all mistakes. We brought France into the game at a time when that shouldn't happen again.

"This is a competition in which we had to show our experience and all our hard work of the past five years. The disappointment is huge because the hard work and all the efforts the team has put in has been thrown away."

The match statistics back up Martinez's complaints.

In the first half, Belgium had more shots (eight compared to France's four) and controlled the possession (55.8 per cent), attempting 389 passes in contrast to 305.

Yet Didier Deschamps' side came out a different force after the restart, mustering 12 attempts in total, with Belgium only managing three, while the possession statistics were also flipped – France having 54.4 per cent of the ball as they upped the pressure and ultimately sealed their place in the final.

 

A stunning goal from Theo Hernandez sent France into the Nations League final after they battled back to beat Belgium 3-2.

The Milan full-back struck in the 90th minute after Karim Benzema and a Kylian Mbappe penalty had cancelled out goals from Yannick Carrasco and Romelu Lukaku.

Lukaku thought he had won an enthralling contest for Belgium with 88 minutes gone, but it was ruled out for offside after a VAR check, and France made their luck count.

In an even opening to the game, Hugo Lloris made a stunning save to keep out Kevin De Bruyne's scuffed effort from close range before Mbappe went close at the other end.

With each side lining up in a 3-4-3 that cancelled out the other, the game began to drift before Carrasco collected De Bruyne's pass, drove into the box past Benjamin Pavard, cut back onto his right foot and drilled a shot in at the near post with Lloris wrong-footed.

It was 2-0 before the interval, Lukaku spinning away from the flat-footed Lucas Hernandez before side-footing high past Lloris, again at his near post.

France kept Belgium pinned back early in the second half but Antoine Griezmann got the ball stuck under his feet after a brilliant run and cut-back from Mbappe.

Mbappe was involved again when France finally capitalised on their dominance, slipping the ball to Benzema, who shot low on the turn beyond the reach of Thibaut Courtois.

Seven minutes later, Mbappe – who missed in the shoot-out loss to Switzerland at Euro 2020 – swept a penalty past Courtois after a VAR check saw Youri Tielemans punished for catching Griezmann.

A rasping effort from De Bruyne was tipped over by Lloris and Aurelien Tchouameni was denied by Courtois, with VAR intervening again when Lukaku thought he had prodded in a winner against the run of play, the Chelsea striker having strayed fractionally offside to meet Carrasco's cross.

Paul Pogba's spectacular free-kick cannoned off the crossbar before France's unlikely hero found the winner, Theo Hernandez rifling left-footed into the right-hand corner after Benjamin Pavard's cross found its way to the Rossoneri star.

Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez believes his side are stronger now than they were three years ago when they made the 2018 World Cup semi-finals.

Martinez's side, who are currently first in the FIFA rankings, will play their World Cup semi-final conquerors France in the final four of the Nations League on Thursday.

After their third-place finish at Russia 2018, Belgium were beaten by Italy in the Euro 2020 quarter-finals in July, prompting suggestions the Red Devils' golden generation had missed their chance for silverware.

Martinez's starting XI in their World Cup semi-final defeat was the oldest (28 years, 356 days) of all of Belgium's line-ups during the tournament, which some might argue was evidence of them being at the peak of their powers.

Between the start of the last World Cup and the present day, Belgium have named a starting XI with an average age of 29 years or more nine times – seven of those have been in 2021 alone. 

"I think I would like to believe that we are stronger just because internally I do feel that we can cope with more players when they are suspended or they are out of the squad," Martinez said during a news conference ahead of the clash with world champions France in Turin.

"I think the pool of players for Belgium now has grown, and as well, an extra three years that we've been able to play together.

"That's what synchronises us, something that you haven't got a lot of in international football. I think we always try to have a certain continuity with the players and try to work like you would do in a club environment.

"The understanding between the players is a lot better. We've been through a lot together. In terms of experience and the pool of players, I believe that we are stronger than we were in 2018."

Martinez conceded France had also grown from their 2018 triumph, citing Kylian Mbappe's evolution into a world-class talent along with the re-emergence of Karim Benzema after international exile and Paul Pogba's return to form.

"I would believe that if you'd ask [France head coach] Didier Deschamps this, he'd also say that his team has improved as well since 2018," Martinez said. "I think this generation in French football, they've got probably three elite footballers per position."

Martinez was full of praise for Belgium forward Romelu Lukaku, who spoke out about his dislike of his tag as a "target man" earlier this week.

Lukaku, who moved from Serie A champions Inter to Champions League holders Chelsea in August, has netted eight times in Belgium's past eight matches and Martinez praised his all-round threat.

"Romelu has become a number nine that can do everything," Martinez said of Belgium's all-time leading scorer. "He can play with his back to the play and run in behind.

"He's got the power, the pace, he's got the understanding of combining with other players as someone that can play with the pace and power, but with intelligence as well.

"I think at his time at the end in Italy with Inter Milan, give him another degree of maturity as well. You're talking about player that is now at the height of his career and his outstanding knack is always scoring goals."

Is there a more reliable way of making sure a football team fails to live up to expectations than to label them the 'Golden Generation'?

Okay, maybe that's a little reductive as 'living up to expectations' is of course entirely dependent on context – the Czech Republic's 'Golden Generation' from 1996-2006 finished second and third at two out of three European Championship appearances. While not successful in the literal sense, most would agree it was a commendable achievement.

But for Belgium's plentiful crop, a lot more was expected than what they've achieved. While perhaps less of a disappointment than England's own 'Golden Generation', third place at a World Cup isn't going to be much of a legacy given some of the talent the Red Devils have had.

Roberto Martinez's side fell at the quarter-final hurdle in Euro 2020, with eventual winners Italy emerging 2-1 victors and Belgium left to watch the latter stages of another tournament pass them by.

At the very least, this week does offer them a chance at a first international trophy. They face France in Turin on Thursday in the second of the 2021 Nations League semi-finals.

But down the line when their best talents have retired, would the Nations League – which probably has a limited shelf-life itself if certain people at FIFA get their way over proposals for biennial World Cups – really suffice as the pinnacle of their achievements?

Red Devils awaiting replenishment

Of course, Belgium do still have time – the next World Cup is only 13 months away.

But how many would realistically consider them among the favourites? Concerns over the age of their squad are valid and, while 13 months isn't necessarily a long time, elite football has a tendency to expose and exacerbate even the slightest weakness, of which age can be an example.

Reaching the 2018 World Cup semi-final was the closest Belgium have come to winning the biggest prize in football, as they got to the last four before ultimately losing to Thursday's opponents France.

 

Martinez's starting XI in that game was the oldest (28 years, 356 days) of all of Belgium's line-ups during the 2018 World Cup. While that may not necessarily be shockingly old in itself, some might suggest that was evidence of them being at the peak of their powers.

Since Russia 2018, Belgium have only got older. Now, you might be inclined to say, "Yeah, that's how aging works, genius", but football is obviously cyclical. Teams don't just age for eternity, they are refreshed and replenished.

It's difficult to say that's happening on a consistent basis with Belgium, though.

Young Lions setting the example

Gareth Southgate's England got just as far as Belgium in Russia and their squad was already rather young (26.0 years), with only Nigeria (25.9) having a younger group of players at the tournament.

The third-place play-off – when fringe players were given opportunities – aside, England's starting XI's average age only dipped below 26 once, and that was their third group game (also against Belgium) having already secured a spot in the next round.

But there were clear signs of further refreshment to Southgate's team after the tournament, with their first XI's average age not reaching 26 again for more than two years (November 2020).

 

Between the start of the last World Cup and the present day, Belgium have named a starting XI with an average age of 29 years or more nine times – seven of those have been in 2021 alone. Their oldest average age in that time, 30 years and 148, was during the 1-0 win over Portugal at Euro 2020.

Of course, it didn't work out too badly on that occasion, and their collective age isn't necessarily a barrier in a given game, but it does suggest Martinez has to be reliant on his older players because the next generation isn't of the same calibre.

The starting XI selected against Portugal at the Euros was the second-oldest named by any team at the tournament after Slovakia.

While key players such as Romelu Lukaku, Yannick Carrasco, Youri Tielemans and Thibaut Courtois haven't reached 30, Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Eden Hazard have.

So, what of the next generation?

Belgium's next hopefuls

Belgium's youngest team of 2021 – and fourth-youngest since the start of the last World Cup – was named last month (26 years, 364 days) in the 1-0 win away to Belarus.

Among the 15 players who featured, only three were 24 or younger: Dodi Lukebakio, Tielemans and Alexis Saelemaekers, who at 22 was the youngest. Zinho Vanheusden (also 22), Yari Verschaeren and Charles De Ketelaere (both 20) were unused substitutes.

Arsenal midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga (21) had been in the squad, while Jeremy Doku impressed with his pace and trickery at Euro 2020 despite only turning 19 in May. These, for the time being, appear to be Belgium's next biggest hopes.

Lokonga looks set to be an interesting option in midfield. Athletic and a hard worker, his 62.2 per cent duel success was the 15th highest among outfield players in the Belgian Pro League last season, but he's also an assuring presence in possession.

 

Of the Pro League players to attempt at least 30 dribbles last term, Lokonga (41) ranked third in terms of completion percentage (72.1), while no midfielder or winger recorded more ball carries (627) than him. Among the same group, only three – two of whom were wingers – carried the ball further upfield over the course of the campaign than Lokonga (3,356.9 metres).

His former Anderlecht team-mate Verschaeren has been around for a few years now, with this impressively his fourth season in the club's first team. Last term saw him progress as a goal threat, improving from two the season before to six, but early suggestions he could be the 'next Eden Hazard' haven't really been on the money.

While Hazard has always been renowned for his dribbling, Verschaeren is a rather less conventional winger in that sense given he only attempted 1.8 per 90 minutes in 2020-21. Instead, his strength lies in link-up play, with just six players among forwards and midfielders (at least 900 minutes played) bettering his 83.5 per cent pass completion in the attacking half of the pitch.

Although his shot-ending sequence involvement average of 4.1 per 90 minutes was unspectacular, it was above average, whereas his goal-ending sequence involvement of 0.8 each game was bettered only seven.

But where Verschaeren's stock may not have risen as quickly as some expected a couple of years ago, De Ketelaere does appear to be on a good trajectory.

Capable of playing as a striker, winger or No.10, De Ketelaere has often been deemed lightweight despite his height and easily knocked off the ball. His duel success has improved to 54.6 per cent this term from 44.3 – among the worst – last season, a consequence of him bulking up somewhat, and although he continues to lack presence aerially (36.8 per cent aerial success), De Ketelaere can get by because he's a good technician.

He was important as an associative player in attack in 2020-21, as demonstrated by the fact he was involved in shot-ending sequences with a total xG (expected goals) value of 21.8, the seventh-highest in the Pro League, while he's already matched last season's goals output of four.

 

Doku is seemingly the outstanding one of the bunch in terms of flair, at the very least. He attempted (184) and completed (110) the fifth-most dribbles across the top five European leagues last season, encouraging proof of his confidence and technique.

Currently injured, Doku still has plenty to work on in terms of his end product, but the raw minerals are there, and he didn't look out of place at Euro 2020.

Are these youngsters enough to carry the burden of expectation that's been cultivated by Belgium's 'Golden Generation', though? At the moment it's difficult to say the new kids on the block are generally of the same quality on an individual level, because Lukaku, De Bruyne, Hazard et al have just been so good over the years.

While Nations League success may not cut it as a satisfactory legacy for this Belgium team, winning the title in Italy might just give them the nudge their collective mentality needs ahead of what looks likely to be a last realistic tilt at the World Cup for a while.

Raphael Varane called on France to rediscover their World Cup-winning form as they prepare to face Belgium in the Nations League semi-final.

Varane won the World Cup in 2018 with Les Bleus but was also part of the disappointment of Euro 2020, which saw France eliminated at the last-16 stage by Switzerland.

France's form in 2021 includes a run of five consecutive draws across all competitions, the first time Les Bleus have gone on such a streak, up until the 2-0 win over Finland in their last outing.

Didier Deschamps' side have however remained unbeaten in their first six matches of World Cup 2022 qualification – the first time they have achieved the feat in qualifying matches for a major tournament since 2006.

And Varane implored his country to use the triumph over Finland as a confidence booster for the upcoming Nations League clash, with the winner facing either Spain or Italy in the final.

"We finished the last game very well," Manchester United centre-back Varane told reporters at Tuesday's pre-match news conference.

"We needed it to revive a dynamic, to regain that confidence. When we chained draws together, there could have been less confidence, but these are the hazards of high-level football.

"We must build on this to continue to maintain this positive dynamic and gain new momentum, with greater success.

"There are all the qualities in this group. It's up to us to succeed in triggering this confidence and success which has enabled us to be world champions.

"We know that it takes this energy, this little madness sometimes in the game to create it."

Varane is joined in the France camp by the Hernandez brothers, Lucas and Theo, who could feature in defence together against Belgium.

The pair, who appeared at the news conference in tandem, assured that whoever starts will give their all to ensure that their team are in the final on Sunday.

"We are brothers but on the field, we are partners," Lucas Hernandez said.

"The most important thing is that everyone wants to win. These are special moments.

"When the matches start, we don't know who will start, but we will be united, we will give each other advice. We're all going to pull in the same direction."

Theo Hernandez echoed his brother's sentiments, adding: "We will help each other. It doesn't matter if it's me or Lucas playing. The other will be there to help him at all times."

Didier Deschamps is not worried about Antoine Griezmann's lack of form ahead of France's Nations League Finals campaign this week.

The 30-year-old returned to Atletico Madrid from Barcelona in a high-profile transfer at the end of August following two largely underwhelming campaigns at Camp Nou.

Griezmann was expected to revive his career in the Spanish capital, but he has managed just one goal and no assists in seven appearances in his second spell with Atletico.

That solitary strike came in last week's 2-1 win over Milan in the Champions League, though he was again left out of Atletico's starting lineup for Saturday's showdown with Barcelona.

He has been named in Deschamps' 23-man squad for this week's Nations League Finals, which will see France face Belgium in the semi-finals on Thursday.

Les Blues will then either take on Italy or Spain in Sunday's final or third-placed play-off, depending on the outcome of both semi-finals.

And Deschamps has no concerns about using Griezmann, who has 41 goals in 98 caps for France, in those matches.

"His goal in the Champions League was very positive," Deschamps said at a news conference on Monday. "Even though he didn't start, that goal will give him confidence.

"He has returned to a club he knows well, but with different players around him. He can't just click his fingers.

"But because of his qualities and state of mind, I do not worry about him. I know he will be happy to join up with the France team."

Griezmann played a full part for France in their World Cup semi-final clash with Belgium en route to lifting the trophy in 2018, setting up Samuel Umtiti's winning goal.

The Nations League presents France with a chance to add to that triumph, having exited Euro 2020 at the last-16 stage, but they must overcome two sides ranked in the world's top eight.

"There is a title at stake; we have a semi-final to play against one of the best teams in the world," he said. 

"With Italy and Spain on the other side, there are four of us fighting for this title. We did everything to qualify for this final phase in a very tough group. 

"We want to get this title. Before there were two titles: the Euros and the World Cup. Now there is the Nations League. Winning it is our goal."

Belgium have named a vastly experienced squad for the Finals, with Jan Vertonghen, Axel Witsel, Toby Alderweireld and Eden Hazard all boasting over 100 caps.

Roberto Martinez's men only reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2020, where they were beaten by tournament winners Italy – their only defeat in 17 matches and one of only two defeats in 31 games since November 2018.

Ranked number one in the world, Deschamps acknowledged France face a big task against Belgium on Thursday.

"They have evolved well, with six or seven players on 100 or more caps," he said. "They are the best team in the FIFA rankings and have a very experienced core.

"It is a beautiful generation of players, but one that has not yet had the happiness of success at the Euros or World Cup."

Deschamps added: "It's going to be a fight at a physical, tactical and technical level. There is a lot of respect between myself and Roberto Martinez and also between the players.

"But there is of course a rivalry there because we are border countries, which we also have with Italy and Spain.

"There was also the 2018 semi-final we played, but this match cannot change what happened then. That will not have too much importance this week."

Roberto Martinez says he has had no contact with Barcelona amid reports he is a contender to replace Ronald Koeman.

Barca boss Koeman is reportedly on the brink of being sacked following a 3-0 Champions League defeat at Benfica on Wednesday.

Martinez is a close friend of Barcelona sporting advisor Jordi Cruyff's and president Joan Laporta is said to be an admirer of the Belgium head coach's work.

However, Spaniard Martinez has played down talk that he could be set to return to his homeland.

"There is absolutely nothing. There are no contacts," Martinez told Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws 

"The basis of my friendship with Jordi is that we separate the private from the professional.

"At no time did I ask Jordi what my situation was in Barcelona. I don't think he has the function of appointing a possible new coach."

Martinez is under contract with the Red Devils until after the World Cup in Qatar next year and says he is focused on the job in hand, with a Nations League semi-final against Italy to come next Thursday.

"I would love for us to be the first European country to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar. That is the challenge after the Nations League final," he added.

"But in football you never know what will be done tomorrow. I wake up every morning as Belgium coach until the last day of my contract, but I realise that many circumstances can arise along the way."

 

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