Roberto Martínez promised that Thursday’s friendly against Ivory Coast in Brussels would be all about “l’après Génération Dorée”. Yet after seeing his side’s 12-match winning streak ended by a penalty from Franck Kessie, the Belgium manager must be relieved to focus on the present once more against England on Sunday.
Martínez celebrated his fourth year in charge in August and his record is simply phenomenal. Belgium have won 36 of their 46 matches since his appointment and been defeated only three times – including in the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup by France – meaning they have occupied top spot in Fifa’s rankings since September 2018.
But with some signs that Belgium’s famous talent pool could be dwindling as the post-Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and co era draws nearer, the former Wigan and Everton manager must seize the opportunity of two major tournaments – next summer’s delayed Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup – taking place in successive years.
“It’s always possible,” says Kristof Terreur, a Belgian journalist who covers English football for the Antwerp-based Het Laatste Nieuws. “This team now has a lot of experience – since 2012 the core hasn’t changed. We could still be an Italy, like in 2006. They know what is required if they make it to the latter stages. But they haven’t been beaten for a long time, so we will have to see how they react if that does happen. England should be the first real test of where we are.”
The Nations League match at Wembley will offer Gareth Southgate’s side an opportunity to gain a slice of revenge for the two defeats they suffered against Belgium in Russia two summers ago. The first – a 1-0 group-stage lossin Kaliningrad, courtesy of Adnan Januzaj’’s winning goal – came after England made eight changes in an attempt to avoid the tougher side of the draw in the knockout stages, before the teams met again in the third-place play-off, which Belgium won 2-0.
This time, Belgium will be without Hazard – their captain – and the goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who returned to Real Madrid because of a hip injury on Friday, while Jan Vertonghen is expected to wear a face mask in order to take part after he suffered a facial injury playing for Benfica.
The former Tottenham defender could win his 121st cap at Wembley and the 33-year-old will be reunited with his former clubmate Toby Alderweireld in Martínez’s favoured back three. But, like England, a lack of depth in defensive areas remains a concern before the European Championship.
“I think the moment has passed maybe – 2020 would have been ideal because the defenders are going to be a year older next summer,” Terreur says. “The huge advantage that we could have if Hazard stays fit is that with him, De Bruyne, Courtois and Romelu Lukaku there are four very important players at their peak.”
Already Belgium’s record goalscorer with 52 goals in 85 appearances, in 2018 Lukaku predicted he would retire from international football after the Euros in order to make way for the next generation and said in April there was no guarantee he would be at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
His presence in attack remains crucial in the absence of Hazard and Napoli’s Dries Mertens, who is in quarantine in Italy after two clubmates tested positive for Covid 19, with Brighton’s Leandro Trossard a contender to start in the front three along with Jérémy Doku.
The 18-year-old became the most expensive Belgian player signed from a Belgian club on deadline day when he joined Rennes for £23m from Anderlecht, having been courted by Jürgen Klopp. Doku – who was reportedly compared to Sadio Mané by the club’s scouting team – visited Melwood in 2017 to meet the Liverpool manager but decided to remain at Anderlecht and has continued his development under Vincent Kompany.
Martínez called him up for the Nations League matches against Denmark and Iceland last month, with Doku scoring in the 5-1 demolition of the latter to underline his vast potential. “It’s not as if he is a star yet – in the Belgian league he had his ups and downs and didn’t score a lot of goals. But you could see his confidence grow after he scored against Iceland,” Terreur says.
“The others who have trained with him see something special – he is probably the fastest player in the squad and has something unpredictable too that can make the difference.”
Doku’s big-money move meant only five of Martínez’s 33-man squad are based in Belgium, while the same number are under the age of 23, compared with eight in England’s squad. Perhaps most telling, though, is the absence of any players from Genk – whose academy produced seven of the current squad, including Courtois, De Bruyne and Timothy Castagne of Leicester.
“There has been a change because you can only produce one or two per generation,” Terreur says. “It’s a typical Belgian thing – once clubs have money, they don’t bring the youngsters through and prefer to bring in average players they hope to sell for a profit. That will happen with Anderlecht now Doku has left as well.”
The Standard Liège defender Zinho Vanheusden and Milan’s Alexis Saelemaekers both made their debuts against Ivory Coast, while Belgium’s age-group sides have continued to record encouraging results, including a 4-1 thrashing of Germany last month thanks to two goals from the Netherlands-based midfielder Mike Trésor Ndayishimiye. But even if the future may not be all that bad, Martínez knows his time is now.