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Belgium's exciting new crop looks to succeed where the 'golden generation' failed


BRUSSELS (AP) — For all its talent, Belgium's so-called golden generation of soccer players has never won a major title.

With only a few members of that era still around, a new group of ambitious youngsters chaperoned by seasoned veterans will compete at the European Championship, looking to shed the country's underachiever reputation.

After the Red Devils failed to progress to the knockout stage of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Belgium has quickly rebuilt a solid and entertaining team under the helm of coach Domenico Tedesco.

The 38-year-old German-Italian remains unbeaten since he was appointed in February last year.

In a very short time, Tedesco has put together a team with an attack-minded style, putting his faith in promising, emerging talents on a mission to win Belgium's first major trophy.

Tedesco has been so convincing that he was given a two-year contract extension until 2026 before the start of the Euros.

After Eden Hazard, Toby Alderweireld and Simon Mignolet announced their retirement from international soccer following the World Cup in Qatar, Tedesco brought in exciting new faces while experienced players such as Dries Mertens and Thorgan Hazard lost their influence.

The new faces have the opportunity to leave their mark at the Euros.

Jeremy Doku is the most prominent of them following his excellent debut season at Manchester City, which should earn him a place in Tedesco's starting lineup in Germany. Alongside Doku, PSV Eindhoven player Johan Bakayoko — who scored 12 goals and delivered nine assists in the Dutch league — is expected to wreak havoc on the right wing of the Belgian attack.

“Mentally I’m here, physically I’m feeling great, and nothing is going to stop (Belgium) from having a big Jeremy,” Doku said after City claimed a fourth consecutive Premier League title.

In midfield, Amadou Onana's box-to-box profile fits perfectly with Orel Mangala's great passing and interception skills. And up front, Loïs Openda has proved at Leipzig that he can be a credible cover for Romelu Lukaku.

Wout Faes, the defender who helped Leicester return to the Premier League, has also become a key figure in Tesdeco's team after struggling to find his place under Martinez. He praised Tedesco's approach, based on mutual confidence, open discussions and video analysis.

“He gives me a lot of confidence,” Faes told DAZN media. “The first time we saw each other, he took me aside and told me: ‘I saw potential in you. That’s exactly how I want to see you play.'”

Tedesco does not enjoy unanimous support, however.

He has upset Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and the two remain at odds since a dispute last year. Courtois announced in December he would miss the Euros and has not backpedaled on his decision despite returning to full fitness for Madrid after a long-term knee injury.

Fortunately for Belgium, other seasoned stalwarts like Jan Vertonghen, Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne are still around to guide the youngsters.

De Bruyne, who was a shadow of himself at the World Cup in Qatar, has been enjoying the rebuild.

"You can see that the young players give us new energy,” he said. “They come here now with the feeling that they will have opportunities and they fight for the national team. If all the players are in the right place, the quality comes through.”

Despite hamstring surgery in mid-August that kept him sidelined for months, De Bruyne has been a crucial asset for Manchester City this season, with 10 assists and four goals in just 18 appearances in the Premier League.

Tedesco has also convinced Axel Witsel to come out of his international retirement before the Euros.

“There is no doubt he is a high-quality player. We need him, he is an experienced player, he can help the young players," Tedesco said of Witsel.

In Qatar, Belgium fans witnessed the golden generation blow its final chance to win the major title it craved following repeated failures in recent years. Belgium made it to the semifinals at the 2018 World Cup and was eliminated in the quarterfinals by eventual winner Italy at the previous European Championship.

But there is hope that Tedesco can succeed where his predecessors failed.

Playing an entertaining vein of soccer high up the pitch combined with aggressive defending, Belgium averaged 2.75 goals per match during its qualification campaign for the Euros, conceding just four goals. In Germany, it will face Slovakia, Romania and Ukraine in Group E. Belgium's best result at the continental tournament is a runner-up finish in 1980.


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