How Belgium's 'golden generation' are making their mark at World Cup
Long touted as World Cup contenders thanks to an abundance of talent, Belgium claimed their biggest scalp ever in beating five-time winners Brazil to reach just their second semi-final.
A ‘golden generation’ featuring Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku exited tamely to Argentina four years ago and blew a huge chance at Euro 2016 when on the kind side of the draw.
Now in their prime, this group of players is unlikely to get a better opportunity to win a major international tournament than over the course of the next week, with France to come in the last four on Tuesday.
Here, AFP Sports looks at Belgium’s rich resources in every area of the field.
COURTOIS STANDS TALL
The giant Chelsea stopper needed every inch of his 6 feet 6 inch (1.99 metre) frame to prevent Neymar hauling Brazil into extra-time with a stunning stoppage time save on Friday.
“I know Neymar likes to curl it that way. I was ready and made a good save,” said Courtois.
“I have been unfairly criticised a lot this year. Today I proved again who I am and why I am here.”
Widely regarded as one of the world’s best goalkeepers, Courtois has won two Premier League titles with Chelsea and La Liga while on loan at Atletico Madrid, but his nine-save display against Brazil was one of his best yet on the big international stage.
LAST CHANCE OF AGEING DEFENCE
Trailblazers for a wave of Belgian talent to make their way to the Premier League, Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen have battled back from years of injury problems just to make the squad at the age of 32.
Before Toby Alderweireld’s own injury problems this season, he and Tottenham teammate Jan Vertonghen had been hailed as the Premier League’s best defensive partnership.
However, Vertonghen, 31, and Alderweireld, 29, also do not have time on their side.
The pace of Kylian Mbappe could cause problems in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday, but Belgium will not be short of experience at the back.
Coach Roberto Martinez had been criticised for not finding the right balance to get the best out of De Bruyne early in the tournament, but the Spaniard’s bold tactical plan worked to perfection against Brazil.
Marouane Fellaini took De Bruyne’s place in a deep-lying midfield role to free up Manchester City’s player of the year to play much further forward and to devastating effect as he blasted home Belgium’s second of the night and his first of the tournament.
Captain Eden Hazard has been consistently brilliant, scoring twice against Tunisia in the group stage, and providing the teasing cross from which Fellaini equalised in a thrilling comeback from 2-0 down to beat Japan 3-2 in the last 16.
As Belgium tired against waves of Brazilian attacks in the second half, Hazard carried his side up the field, winning free-kicks and relieving the pressure — a sign of his and this side’s growing maturity.
LUKAKU MORE THAN A GOALSCORER
Still in the race for the Golden Boot behind Harry Kane, with Belgium now guaranteed two more matches, Romelu Lukaku has shown another side to his game so far in the knockout phase after scoring four times in the group stages.
His superb run off the ball and dummy in the final seconds against Japan cleared the space for Thomas Meunier to tee up Nacer Chadli’s winner.
Against Brazil, again it was Lukaku’s link-up play that proved decisive as he powered past Fernandinho and Paulinho on a rapid counter-attack before feeding De Bruyne to smash home from the edge of the area.