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KDB, Belgium look to finally break through at Euro


Belgium’s vaunted “Golden Generation” might have burned out, but there is quality in its embers that will be on display this summer in Germany.

After several tournaments with heavy expectations that the Red Devils collapsed under the weight of, Belgium enters Euro 2024 without the designation of being the sexy pick to win it all. While nobody will underestimate a team with this kind of skill on the squad, there’s the sense that this isn’t a team with victory in its DNA and that comes part and parcel with so many years of underachieving, most notably a painful semifinals exit at the 2018 World Cup.

Ranked the No. 1 team in the world from 2018 to 2021, Belgium has nothing to show for it in their trophy cabinet. But you’re an underachiever until you’re not, and a weak Group E opens the door for a run to the knockouts for the Red Devils. After so much disappointment, could this finally be the year?

Domenico Tedesco is the man who leads Belgium into the tournament, looking to do what both Marc Wilmots and Roberto Martinez could not. The Red Devils are the first national side managed by the Italian-born German, who has had previous spells with RB Leipzig, Spartak Moscow and Schalke. The early returns have been good for Tedesco with the team undefeated in 12 matches on his watch, but games against heavy hitters have been few and far between. Their friendly against tournament favourite England in March ended in a 2-2 draw, with the Red Devils twice blowing a lead.

While the likes of Eden Hazard, Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen have exited the national setup, some from the Golden Generation remain in the form of Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Jan Vertonghen and Yannick Carrasco, who will shepherd Belgium into this new era.

Courtois stays at home

Thibaut Courtois would also have been a returnee and the man to wear the No. 1 shirt in Germany, but the Real Madrid goalkeeper is not on the roster. His absence has become a curious one.

In August, the 32-year-old Courtois tore his ACL in training, ruling him out of a majority of the season and handing the starter’s role at Los Blancos to Ukraine keeper Andriy Lunin. As Courtois was preparing to once again be available for selection, the team announced in March that he incurred a setback with a meniscus tear and would miss several more weeks. It was at this time that Courtois was officially ruled out of the Euro. But Courtois would go on to make his season debut on May 4 in a 3-0 win over Cadiz.

Then on June 1, only hours before the Champions League Final, Real announced that illness would keep Lunin out of the match with Courtois handed the start. Courtois would turn away all three shots he faced as Real claimed a 2-0 victory to win a sixth Champions League title in 11 seasons and the club’s 15th overall. Despite being healthy enough to win club football’s biggest prize, his status for the Euro has not changed and Courtois will not be in Germany.

With Courtois out of the picture, the battle for Belgium’s No. 1 shirt appears to have been won by Wolfsburg’s Koen Casteels. Capped eight times by the Red Devils, Casteels made his senior debut in 2020 and has the edge over Nottingham Forest’s Matz Sels, who also has eight senior appearances to his name. Joining them will be Thomas Kaminski of the relegated Luton Town.

In the back, Tedesco has opted for a mix of youth and experience that hammers home the reality of the Belgian program being in a transition period. All-time caps leader Vertonghen, back in Belgium at Anderlecht after 17 seasons abroad at Ajax, Tottenham Hotspur and Benfica, is the oldest player on the roster at 37 and will be one of the elder statesmen at the tournament on the whole. He’s joined by Thomas Meunier of Trabzonspor and Fulham’s Timothy Castagne as the veteran core of the backline. The remaining four members of the defensive corps have a combined 34 caps with Rennes’ Arthur Theate and Wout Faes of Leicester City accounting for 28 of them. Vertonghen’s Anderlecht teammate, 20-year-old Zeno Debast, is on the squad, as is the uncapped Maxim De Cuyper of Club Brugge.

Still De Bruyne's team

As long as he is still around, the midfield belongs to captain De Bruyne. It sounds ridiculous to say that a man who has twice been the Premier League Player of the Season, won six Premier League titles, two FA Cups and a Champions League crown remains underrated, but the Manchester City icon’s level of appreciation at large does not match his prodigious talents. Cursed to have played at the same time as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, De Bruyne has never once been a finalist for the Ballon d’Or, even if the times when he hasn’t been the best player on any given pitch have been a rarity. The tournament marks a return to the national setup for De Bruyne after a yearlong absence.

Nearly 33, De Bruyne is no longer at his peak. Still, the kind of vision he has and his playmaking abilities aren’t the kind of things that fall off with age and that was demonstrated by completing .745 of his passes per 90 minutes this past season, putting him in the 90th percentile of European midfielders. With manager Pep Guardiola indicating that this next season, the final one on his current contract, will be his last at the Etihad and De Bruyne talking openly about how Saudi Arabian sides are offering life-changing money, the halcyon days at City could be at their end, but it’s unlikely that Euro 2024 will be the last of De Bruyne for Belgium.

A surprise addition to the Red Devils midfield is Axel Witsel. The 35-year-old Liege native retired from international football last summer, but had a change of heart in May and accepted a call-up. To go along with the change of heart has been a change in position with Witsel deployed by Diego Simeone as a centre-back regularly with Atletico this past season.

Still only 27, Aston Villa’s Youri Tielemans has the third-most caps in the midfield behind only De Bruyne and Witsel. He’s joined by Charles De Ketelaere of Atalanta, Everton’s Amadou Onana, Orel Mangala of Lyon, Aster Vranckx of Wolfsburg and Atleti’s Arthur Vermeeren. Antwerp’s Mandel Keita and the uncapped Arne Engels of Augsburg have also been called into the squad with one of the two expected to be the only cut from the team ahead of the tournament.

Outside of Courtois, the biggest name left out of the squad is Leander Dendoncker, but his absence isn’t a surprise and it compounds what was already a terrible season for the versatile 28-year-old Passendale native. Having fallen out of favour with Unai Emery at Villa, Dendoncker was loaned out to Napoli. But after only three matches in Serie A, manager Walter Mazzarri was fired and caretaker manager Francesco Calzona froze Dendoncker out of the first team, citing a concern with his fitness level. His Napoli career, presumably at its end, finishes with Dendoncker playing a total of 24 minutes.

Lukaku leads the line

All-time leading goal scorer Lukaku returns to lead the line up front for the Red Devils. Despite 83 international goals and 301 club goals over 16 senior seasons, the former Everton, Manchester United and Inter man has been dogged for almost his entire career by claims of wasted potential. Cutting the kind of laconic figure off the ball that Dimitar Berbatov, who was subject to similar criticism, did, the 31-year-old Antwerp native’s style of play lends itself to reproach when he’s not putting balls in the net. This past season, Lukaku scored 21 goals across all competitions for Roma on loan from Chelsea.

Much like he did in back and in midfield, Tedesco has anchored his forward complement with a veteran trio. Alongside Lukaku are Carrasco, who now plays for Saudi Pro League side Al-Shabab, and Leandro Trossard, who was a true difference maker for Arsenal this season as the Gunners finished as runners-up in the Prem. Carrasco and Trossard have combined for 18 international goals.

Youth is served in the remainder of the attacking corps. In his first season at City, 24-year-old winger Jeremy Doku had three goals and 11 league assists to help bring a fourth straight title to the Etihad. Lois Openda announced his arrival in the Bundesliga with a 24-goal performance for Leipzig. Also going to Germany are Sevilla winger Dodi Lukebakio and 20-year-old PSV winger Johan Bakayoko.

Entering the tournament as the No. 3 team in the world, the Red Devils will play alongside Ukraine (No. 22), Romania (No. 46) and Slovakia (No. 48) in Group E and are heavily favoured to reach the knockouts for the third straight Euros. Their tournament kicks off on June 17 against Slovakia in Frankfurt.