A ‘Golden Generation’ is a moniker often handed out in international football and a title that befits Belgium ahead of the 2018 World Cup.
While promise on the biggest stage is nothing new for the lowland nation – note their semi-final appearance in 1986 – never before have their chances of lifting football’s grandest prize been so tangible and hopeful. Going into the tournament in Russia, Belgium have stepped into the Goldilocks zone for their Golden Generation.
Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne are arguably the two most talented players in the Premier League, while Toby Alderweireld and Romelu Lukaku stir up excitement of their own. Marry that to the management structure of Roberto Martinez and Thierry Henry, and optimism justly simmers away.
Belgium are now the dominant force in the Low Countries. Gone are the days of inferiority to the Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten-inspired Dutch.
The question simply remains as to whether the Red Devils have learnt from the mistakes of the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016, and whether or not the chance of glory with this glut of talent will pass them by.
Belgium's World Cup squad
Goalkeepers: Courtois, Mignolet, Casteels,
Defenders: Alderweireld, Boyata, Kompany, Meunier, Vermaelen, Vertonghen
Midfielders: Chadli, De Bruyne, Dembele, Fellaini, T Hazard, E Hazard, Januzaj, Tielemans, Witsel, Dendoncker
Forwards: Batshuayi, R Lukaku, Mertens, Carrasco
How did they qualify?
Belgium emerged from qualification with an almost immaculate record, romping their way to top spot in UEFA Group H with nine victories and just a single draw. Only Greece could hold Martinez’s side, limiting them to a 1-1 stalemate at the King Baudouin Stadium.
They scored no less than 43 goals across the 10 fixtures, including a 4-0 thrashing of Cyprus, an 8-1 romp of Estonia and a 9-0 humiliation of Gibraltar. Belgium even traversed the difficult away trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina with a dramatic 4-3 win rounded off by Yannick Carrasco’s last-gasp strike.
Lukaku topped the goal-scoring charts with a menacing tally of 11, including a hat-trick against Gibraltar last August. Hazard had six strikes to his name, too, while right-back Thomas Meunier astonishingly weighed in with five goals and Christian Benteke contributed three with a Gibraltar treble of his own.
That one slip-up – against Greece – required a late equaliser from Lukaku, but the Red Devils exacted revenge just five months later. A 2-1 victory in Piraeus came virtue of Lukaku once again; just minutes after Zeca had cancelled out a Jan Vertonghen opener.
Eden Hazard – the golden boy of Belgian football - will be searching for his major breakthrough on the international stage. Hazard’s competition experience with Belgium has been defined by mediocrity, entering a World Cup in glittering form and a European Championship off colour.
Even if Hazard doesn’t reach the heights expected of him in Russia, though, few players at the tournament possess the skillset and talent to turn a match on its head like he does.
His teammate De Bruyne was a top nominee for the PFA Player of the Year award and has been the star performer in Pep Guardiola’s indomitable Manchester City team this season.
De Bruyne will provide the passing magic and supply-line for this Belgium side and if he can optimise his connection with Hazard and Lukaku, they’ll be no shortage of goals from Belgian boots.
While Vincent Kompany will be hoping for a final hoorah over the summer, Toby Alderweireld looks set to fill the boots of the legendary figure. The 29-year-old has been hoarding caps since 2013 and duly so with herculean performances for Atletico Madrid and Tottenham.
Defensive stability will be key for the Belgians in Russia and Alderweireld’s presence will provide them with great optimism going into the finals.
One to watch - Youri Tielemans
Youri Tielemans is beginning to thrive amid his new lease of life at AS Monaco. An impressive bout of form in 2018 makes it almost certain that Martinez will call upon the 20-year-old as his wild card and secret weapon this summer.
Tielemans has graduated from accumulating youth awards to collecting the distinguished Belgian Footballer of the Year accolade in 2017, as well as boasting eight caps-worth of experience already. He wields the perfect level of knowhow to hold his nerve on the world stage while remaining an unknown quantity to defenders.
After a steady start to life in a top five European league, Tielemans is finding his form at the perfect time. With 27 appearances this season and a barnstorming performance against Angers in February, there’s ample evidence to think he’ll be the latest wonderkid to shine.
Roberto Martinez inherited the role of Belgium manager in August 2016, spending two years with his star-studded squad in a mission to prepare them for Russia. The Spaniard is 16 games deep into the job with an impressive record of 11 victories, four draws and only a single defeat to Spain back in 2016.
It is the biggest job of a still relatively young managerial career for Martinez. A surprise appointment after a disappointing spell at Everton, he has so far proved the doubters wrong, taking to international management with the best win percentage of his career.
Furthermore, none other than Thierry Henry has helped him along the way in his first coaching role as assistant manager.
Belgium’s coaching set-up appeared a Frankenstein partnership back in 2016 but it's one that, two years on, still holds quiet promise going into their first tournament.
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Potential route to the final
Belgium came close to the perfect group stage draw, but they face the difficult challenge of England to ensure a safe passage to the knockout rounds.
If they manage to top Group G, they would face the runners-up of Group H, which looks most likely to be a plucky Poland outfit or potential dark horses Japan.
From the quarter-finals onward, though, the Red Devils look poised for a blockbuster route to the final, assuming there are no major shocks in the group stages or round of 16. An in-form Brazil side appear the most likely opponents in the last eight, while a French team stacked with talent could block passage to the final.
There’s no easy passage but it just wouldn’t be the World Cup if there was.
Belgian journalist and national team pundit @SvenClaes
“Belgium aren't a dark horse anymore. They had their last chance at Euro 2016 in France, but they blew it against Wales.
“Kevin De Bruyne already a champion with Manchester City, so he can fully focus on the World Cup in Russia. He is, in my opinion, our key player for the tournament - not Eden Hazard from Chelsea.
"We need the magnificent passes from KDB to win games. Then, Romelu Lukaku can become top scorer if Belgium reach the semi-finals.
“But my prediction? Quarter-finals and then an exit against Brazil or Germany. These teams are far better than Belgium and I don’t expect us to reach the semis.”
Packed with Premier League talent, Belgium will be looking to bounce back from their disappointing Euro 2016 quarter-final defeat to Wales.
They are considered fringe contenders to lift the trophy (11/1)*, just behind Argentina, Spain and France in the pecking order.
Manchester United forward Romelu Lukaku leads the line and he’s fancied at 18/1* to scoop the Golden Boot although he didn’t exactly shine at the European Championship in France.
The former Chelsea man managed two goals - one every 201 minutes - as a talented Belgium attack struggled to click.
*Please note these odds are correct at time of publishing and could be subject to change.
**GiveMeSport brings you this article in collaboration with William Hill