Belgium's Golden Generation must seize chance at Euro 2016, says Neil Humphreys
Golden generation can prevail, if they stop leaking goals
(Romelu Lukaku 32, Eden Hazard 70, Laurent Ciman 73)
(Joshua King 21, Veton Berisha 48)
Once in a while, in between his work at the Jalan Besar Stadium office, Michel Sablon must be pondering the fruits of his labour.
He built his reputation on shaping men from the lost boys of Belgian football, offering a clear, concise coaching strategy that has led to this moment.
The children of Sablon's revolution must be ready to seize control of Europe. It's now or never for Belgium.
Sablon, the Football Association of Singapore's technical director, seeks to repeat the trick with the Lions of tomorrow, but he could be forgiven for being preoccupied with the Belgians of today.
In 2006, he formulated his plan to resurrect the national game. A decade later, he hopes Euro 2016 will realise his lofty ambitions.
Many of the youngsters who directly benefited from Sablon's youth development model - such as Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku - all featured in the 3-2 friendly win over Norway yesterday morning (Singapore time).
The extent of Sablon's achievements was recognised on the Belgian bench.
Few other nations at Euro 2016 boast the kind of depth that allows coach Marc Wilmots to leave Mousa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini, Divock Origi, Christian Benteke and Simon Mignolet in the dugout.
All are the right side of 30. Belgium must believe they are on the right side of history.
Momentum is certainly with them. Lukaku's goal against Norway was his fourth in four internationals, making it 26 in 49 matches for club and country across the season.
He's a Belgian bull in the box, offering what leading nations like Portugal and Italy clearly lack, a totemic presence up front and a reliable No. 9.
Hazard's 13th goal for Belgium appeared to confirm the cynical suspicion that he scores when he wants and lifts his game when the circumstances suit his needs.
The left-sided menace against Norway bore little resemblance to the sulking drifter at Chelsea. Euro 2016 represents a shop window and Hazard is ready to dance for suitors.
Along with De Bruyne, Dries Mertens and even Dembele and Fellaini, Belgium bring a tidy combination of magic and muscle.
What they do not have - and this is an ongoing theme among the tournament's leading contenders - is a settled, confident defence.
It's interesting to note that Sablon's youth development model, both in Belgium and now Singapore, is built on a fluid, flexible 4-3-3 that allows for conventional or inverted wingers to adapt to the demands of international football.
But Wilmots has favoured a 4-2-3-1 in friendlies and will do so again in the tournament proper, perhaps concerned with defensive frailties.
With key centre backs Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts both injured, Wilmots has paired Tottenham duo Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld together.
Their club relationship should theoretically strengthen their partnership, but Vertonghen's return from injury unfortunately coincided with Spurs' title collapse.
Question marks remain over both Vertonghen's fitness and the consistency between the two men.
As a result, Wilmots opted for two midfield anchors against Norway, Radja Nainggolan and Axel Witsel, which allowed the Norwegians to profit from the space out wide.
Belgium are unbeaten in their last three games, but were lucky to beat a side that failed to qualify for Euro 2016.
They may not be so fortunate in a Group of Death that includes Italy, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland.
Their Group E opener is against Italy, a troubled side with problems at the other end of the pitch; an obdurate defence is lumbered with an anaemic forward line.
A potentially low-scoring draw leaves both nations facing nerve-jangling contests against the feisty Irish and the Zlatan Ibrahimovic-led Sweden.
The ominous sense of urgency threatens to overwhelm Belgium, with the coaching and playing staff aware of the nationwide feeling that their time is now. Sablon's handiwork deserves vindication at Euro 2016.
The ages of Courtois (24), Jason Denayer (20), Hazard (25), De Bruyne (24) and Lukaku (23) are a testament to Sablon's vision, but a ticking time bomb for Wilmots.
With Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Witsel, Mertens, Fellaini and Dembele all close to - or over - 30 by the time the 2018 World Cup comes around, the Belgians know that Euro 2016 will either pigeonhole them with the victorious Germans of two years ago, or dump them with the plodding English of the previous decade.
To be labelled a golden generation is to be shackled with the most ambiguous of accolades.
Lift the silverware, as Germany managed at the 2014 World Cup, and the qualified praise acknowledges a team fulfilling superior potential.
But a failed golden generation, on the other hand, offers a shortcut to infamy.
'Red Devils will go far at Euros'
YOU'RE THE MAN: Belgium substitute Laurent Ciman (centre) getting feted by Axel Witsel (left) and Romelu Lukaku, after scoring the winner. PHOTO: AFP
Expect Belgium to reach the later stages of the European Championship, says Norway coach Per-Mathias Hogmo, after his side lost 3-2 to the Red Devils yesterday morning (Singapore time).
But to do that, they must first fix their backline.
Hogmo said: "It's not a secret that Belgium have problems in defence and, in particular, on the flanks.
"But they should be able to solve them in the end and several of their English Premier League players are coming into form at the right time.
"I personally see them going quite far at the Euros."
Hogmo was referring to Belgium's new-look backline, with Tottenham Hotspur's Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, who usually play as fullbacks for their country, reprising their club role as centre backs, because of injuries to Vincent Kompany, Nicolas Lombaerts, Bjorn Engels, Dedryck Boyata and Thomas Vermaelen.
Against Norway, Belgium coach Marc Wilmots deployed Jason Denayer, a 20-year-old Manchester City centre back on loan at Galatasaray, at right back.
Wilmots had previously stated that Denayer is the natural successor to Kompany.
At left back was another youngster - 21-year-old Jordan Lukaku, younger brother of Everton striker Romelu.
The Oostende player performed creditably, but Wilmots has urged him to cut out the errors, which would be punished against a side like Italy, whom they meet in their Group E opener next Tuesday morning (Singapore time).
"You don't make a defence in three days," Wilmots told RTBF. "Jordan had a good match, but there were some errors that could have consequences against a team like Italy.
"That's the top level. You have to learn not to make them, but how can I ask a kid from the Belgian league not to make any mistakes?"
Wilmots could perhaps take comfort from the fact that his substitute, Montreal Impact defender Laurent Ciman, came off the bench to score the winner.
Romelu and Eden Hazard had earlier scored for the home side in Brussels either side of goals for Norway from Joshua King and Veton Berisha.
The result allowed Wilmots' men to complete a largely positive build-up to Euro 2016, following a 2-1 win in Switzerland and a 1-1 draw at home to Finland.
Romelu opened the scoring at the King Baudouin Stadium inside three minutes with a thumping shot from the edge of the box.
However, Norway, who fell short in qualifying for the Finals, drew level through Bournemouth forward King midway through the first half and a terrific effort from Berisha put them ahead early in the second half.
Belgium's equaliser arrived 20 minutes from time as Lukaku found Kevin De Bruyne and his cross from the right was headed in by Hazard at the near post.
Three minutes later, Belgium got the winner, Alderweireld helping on a corner by substitute Dries Mertens for Ciman, 30, to score his first international goal. - AFP.
- BELGIUM: Thibaut Courtois, Jason Denayer (Laurent Ciman 66), Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Jordan Lukaku, Axel Witsel (Marouane Fellaini 57), Radja Nainggolan, Dries Mertens (Divock Origi 80), Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard (Mousa Dembele 84), Romelu Lukaku