Belgium foresee more success

Belgium captain Eden Hazard strutting on the balcony of the Grand Place Town Hall in Brussels, to the delight of a jubilant crowd welcoming the team after they finished third in Russia.
Belgium captain Eden Hazard strutting on the balcony of the Grand Place Town Hall in Brussels, to the delight of a jubilant crowd welcoming the team after they finished third in Russia.PHOTO: REUTERS

They aim to do better at Euro 2020, next World Cup and want U-21s to challenge too

ST PETERSBURG • Belgium are looking forward to bigger and better things as they were greeted by thousands of fans on their return to Brussels yesterday after finishing third at the World Cup.

Red Devils coach Roberto Martinez is expecting Belgium to kick on at all levels, culminating in a push to be strong contenders at the European Championship in 2020 and the 2022 World Cup.

"These players have set a new standard in the national team, now we need to bring success in younger groups," said the Spaniard.

"We need to see the Under-21s challenge for trophies and other age groups do the same. We need to create competition for places in the next two years, but we have set standards on and off the pitch which need to be continued."

Players such as captain Eden Hazard, 27, Kevin de Bruyne, 27, Romelu Lukaku, 25, and Thibaut Courtois, 26, will likely lead Belgium's charge for major trophies.

Chelsea star Hazard, who scored in Belgium's 2-0 win over England in the third-place play-off for his third goal of the tournament, is already thinking of how to elevate his status. With the Blues absent from the Champions League next season, he hinted that he could move to European champions Real Madrid.

"After six wonderful years at Chelsea, it might be time to discover something different," said the forward, who also had two assists in Russia.

"I can decide if I want to stay or go, but Chelsea will make the final decision. For my career, certainly after this World Cup, I'm at a moment where I might change."

He has long been linked with a move to Real, who are in the market for a top-class forward after recently selling all-time leading scorer Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus for €100 million (S$160 million). This week, Hazard spoke of his admiration for the Spanish giants in an interview with beIN Sports.

"I think Real Madrid is everyone's dream. Zidane or no Zidane, the white shirt is special," he said, referring to the club's former coach.

Former Chelsea and Denmark midfielder Brian Laudrup revealed one of the worst-kept secrets in football. He told Croatian newspaper Sportske Novosti: "I spoke to Eden Hazard a few days ago, he is preparing for a move to Real Madrid and it is a good move both for him and for Real. Again in Russia, he proved how good he is."

While Hazard could be Real's next galactico, a host of England players will be fighting to start for their respective clubs when the Premier League begins in four weeks.

None of Marcus Rashford, Phil Jones or Jesse Lingard is a guaranteed starter at Manchester United. Fabian Delph, John Stones and Raheem Sterling will all have a battle on their hands to appear regularly on the Manchester City team sheet.

Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson also faces competition in the shape of new faces - Brazilian Fabinho and Guinean Naby Keita. It is even harder for emerging talent like 22-year-old Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who ended the tournament with a promising display but does not even know where he will be playing next season.

Should they be restricted to limited minutes, England manager Gareth Southgate will face challenges in building on their fourth place - their highest position since 1990. Despite the optimism generated by England's run, they lost three of their seven matches at the tournament.

"We are very proud of what we've done, but we're under no illusions as a team as to where we stand," Southgate said after his side fell to Belgium for the second time in the tournament.

"We finished in the final four but we're not a top-four team yet, we've never hidden behind that. Against the very best teams, we've come up short."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2018, with the headline 'Belgium foresee more success'. Print Edition | Subscribe