Which version of Eden Hazard will show up for Belgium at Euro 2020?
Their stars are still all playing together this summer, though maybe for the last time. The Belgian golden generation have gotten close to glory in the past decade, but have never won anything. They've been No. 1 in the FIFA World ranking since September 2018 -- technically making them the best team in the world, yet in every big competition in the last 10 years, they have fallen short.
For Eden Hazard (30 years old), Kevin De Bruyne (30), Dries Mertens (34), Toby Alderweireld (32), Jan Vertonghen (34), Axel Witsel (32), Thomas Vermaelen (35) and perhaps even Nacer Chadli (32 in August), this is the last chance. Of course, some of them will travel to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup; their youngest stars, like midfielder Youri Tielemans, might even keep playing until the 2024 Euros in Germany after Romelu Lukaku & Co. are ageing out, but this tournament stands to be their last hurrah as a group. And there is no better way to say goodbye than to finally win it.
Every time the Red Devils are among the favourites before a big competition, they stumble. At the 2014 World Cup, their first major tournament as a unit, they lost to Argentina in the quarterfinals (1-0). In 2016, at the Euros, they were too complacent against Wales in the quarterfinals, suffering an embarrassing 3-1 defeat after taking a 1-0 lead. In 2018, they were frustrated by a solid, efficient French team in the World Cup semifinal, before rallying to beat England and finish third.
Clearly, Belgium have become a power in international football. They've steadily improved under Roberto Martinez, who replaced Marc Wilmots as manager in August 2016. They are well-organised, with a 3-4-2-1 formation that makes the best of their squad, but also have so much individual talent to call upon. The problem is that De Bruyne is still recovering from the facial injuries he suffered in the Champions League final and could yet miss the first game against Russia on Saturday. Hazard is struggling for form after two nightmare years in terms of injury. Witsel hasn't played since January and will also miss the start of the tournament.
Nevertheless, the Belgian camp believe this could be their turn, that they could finally break their duck. After all, they're No. 1 in the world. In Romelu Lukaku, they have one of the five best strikers in the world after two superb seasons with Inter. Thibaut Courtois carried Real Madrid on his own at times this year. Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco has been fantastic in 2021 for Atletico Madrid, a clutch contributor in clinching the title. Champions League final aside, De Bruyne has been great again, while Tielemans has taken his game to the next level this season with Leicester City.
However, there are some fragilities in defense. Is the back-three really the most suited to this squad? Without a fully fit Witsel, is the defence exposed? Ultimately, the key could be how much they have learned from previous disappointments. How would they approach a semifinal against France now? How about a game against an underdog? Surely, all the experience they have gathered through all these years will come good, though time is running out.
With Russia, Denmark and Finland, Belgium have the perfect group in which to build momentum in order to hit their peak in the knockout stages. From there, the entire nation will be hoping that this time, their dream becomes reality.