Euro 2024: What to know about Belgium

Euro 2024: What to know about Belgium

Undergoing a rebuilding process after several failures of the famous golden generation led by superstar Eden Hazard, Belgium is determined to return to the forefront at this Euro 2024. To do so, new coach Domenico Tedesco is relying on a few old-timers seeking revenge and young talents who want to take over and write their own history with the Red Devils.

The qualifying campaign and the group:

In recent years, the Red Devils have sometimes experienced hell in the major competitions they have participated in. Semi-finalists at the 2018 World Cup, they were knocked out of the Euro 2020 quarter-finals by Italy before hitting rock bottom at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where they were eliminated in the group stage. A terrible fiasco that had significant consequences. After 6 years in charge, coach Roberto Martinez left the ship. The same goes for superstar Eden Hazard and Axel Witsel, a few months later. In this particular context, Belgium has launched a major project led by the German-Italian Domenico Tedecsco, whose priority objective was to qualify the country for Euro 2024. A mission accomplished since the Red Devils finished unbeaten and top of their qualifying group (Group F, 6 wins, 1 draw and 0 defeats) which included Sweden, Azerbaijan, Estonia and Austria, the toughest opponent. Moreover, Belgium secured their qualification on the 7th matchday and finished top with 20 points, one more than the Austrian team.

For their trip to Germany, Belgium, which will be playing in its sixth European Championship, its third in a row, will face Slovakia, Romania and Ukraine in a Group E that is a priori within its reach. Quarter-finalists of the last two Euros and favourites in their group, the Flat Country wants to restore its reputation. To do so, they will have to avoid the trap set by the Slovaks, who finished second behind Portugal in the qualifiers, the Romanians, who finished top of their group ahead of Switzerland, and the Ukrainians, who qualified through the play-offs. The perfect opportunity to see if Belgium has digested its recent failures…

Strengths and weaknesses

While not among the favourites for the tournament, Belgium could be one of the outsiders in this Euro. A real talent supplier, the country ranked third in the FIFA rankings, behind Argentina (1st) and France (2nd), has many assets to make the most of, including a fiery attacking power. Despite the departure of Eden Hazard, the Red Devils remain formidable in attack, having scored 22 goals in the Euro qualifiers (including 1 penalty), an average of 2.75 goals per game. Twelve were scored with the left foot, six with the right foot and one with the head. They also had 119 shots on goal, but 42 were on target (43 shots off target, 34 attempts saved). So we will have to rely on this in Germany, as Christophe Franken, head of the football section of La Dernière Heure, explains to us. “The first quality is the attacking sector. It’s a team that is naturally turned towards attack, especially when Romelu Lukaku is there. He has a different profile. He’s a pivot and around him things move all over the place, between Jérémy Doku, Dodi Lukebakio, Johan Bakayoko, plus the midfield which is also quite attacking with obviously Kevin De Bruyne. But guys like Youri Tielemans, Amadou Onana or Orel Mangala love to get in behind and the team is drawn to attack. It’s an attack that can annoy everyone at the Euro, without exception.” We can’t say the opposite. But Belgium also has areas to improve, such as the defence. While they only conceded 4 goals during the qualifiers, they will have to do without their number one goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who has announced his forfait and whose relations with the coach are icy, following a conflict related to the captain’s armband in the absence of KDB. Courtois did not accept to share this role with Lukaku. In any case, he will be missed by the Red Devils according to the La DH journalist. “We don’t have Thibaut Courtois for the moment as it’s complicated with the coach. We have plenty of good goalkeepers but no longer a top goalkeeper. For the moment, it’s a match between two players. There’s Koen Casteels, the first choice at Wolfsburg. He has incredible bad luck, he’s always injured at the wrong time. He didn’t play the March matches when he should have. Quietly, Matz Sels, who you know well in France from his time at Strasbourg, is making his way. He’s also doing good things at Nottingham Forest. For the moment, it’s a match between the two. It’s hard to say who will be the first choice. Even the coach is a bit more hesitant on this.”

However, a solid last line of defence will be needed as the defence is not really reassuring. “The big weakness is the defence. It’s a team that can annoy everyone at the Euro, but the defence can suffer against anyone at the Euro. Despite a 24-team tournament and less experienced teams, we can also be surprised by anyone. The defence has been criticised for being ageing so it has been rejuvenated. There’s only Jan Vertonghen left, the Devil with the most caps in the history of our national team (154 caps, ed.). He’s still there and he’s still a first-choice. For the rest, they are younger players who are still finding their feet. Wout Faes, who is a first-choice at Leicester in the English second division (they are going to be promoted to the Premier League, ed.), is a solution as is Zeno Debast, who plays with Vertonghen at club level at Anderlecht. They form a good defensive pair. Faes and Debast have different qualities but still quite a lot of shortcomings. They are not yet European class defenders. Debast could become one but he is still young (20 years old). For Faes, he is a bit older (26 years old). On the right, Thomas Meunier and Timothy Castagne are sure bets. On the left, it’s a bit more delicate.” The same goes for midfield, which was not initially a problem. “On paper, it should be one of the great strengths as there is a density of talent. It’s rare for a small country like Belgium, with a lot of good players, a lot of young players who still need to come through like Roméo Lavia, who had everything to prove himself at Chelsea and maybe be the ‘surprise’ at the Euro. But he had a virtually blank season and we won’t see him again yet. Onana is an excellent player. A box-to-box and defensive midfielder but who can do everything in midfield. But at Everton, it’s not going as well as it could be. He was hoping for a transfer, it didn’t happen. He’s not always a first-choice. Not to mention Mangala, who plays very little at Lyon when he was a sure bet at Nottingham Forest. The coach loves him, but he plays very little at club level. Tielemans is coming back well, even though he had a period where he was playing less at Aston Villa.” Tedesco and his staff will have to deal with this, while hoping to avoid any physical setbacks in the meantime.

The manager: Domenico Tedesco

After the departure of Roberto Martinez, the Royal Belgian Football Federation received an impressive number of CVs. Claude Puel, Hervé Renard and even Thierry Henry were all linked with the Red Devils. But in the final straight, two profiles emerged. Those of Peter Bosz and Domenico Tedesco. And it was the latter who was the lucky choice. Highly motivated, the German-Italian, who has had spells at Schalke 04, Spartak Moscow and RB Leipzig, knew he was taking on a colossal task in Belgium. A nation under reconstruction marked by recent failures. But the 38-year-old coach has managed to find his feet and lead his team to success, as they have not lost under his orders (8 wins, 4 draws). He has also dealt with the Courtois issue with a firm hand. A firm attitude that has been very much appreciated by our neighbours according to the La DH journalist. “He is very much appreciated in Belgium. He arrived with a bit of a name but he was less well-known than a Roberto Martinez who was there before him. He had to succeed him and he did it in a very pragmatic way. Even if it’s a bit of a cliché, he’s more in the German organisation than the Italian flair. In any case, in terms of character, not football, he’s very clear and direct in everything. So that’s very much appreciated, especially by the federation which has already extended his contract before even knowing what will happen at the Euro. So he’s a guy who has very quickly adapted to Belgium, even if he continues to live in Germany with his family he is very often here. We often see him in the stadiums of the Belgian championship.”

Meticulous and involved, the Rossano-born native also wants to implement an attacking style of football while maintaining a certain defensive and tactical discipline. In fact, his line-up for the Euro is taking shape, although there are still some uncertainties in certain positions. “Tedesco uses a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, it’s about the same thing. In goal, Koen Casteels remains the favourite to start, although it will be very close with Matz Sels. At left-back, I think it will be Arthur Theate. He’s not a true full-back but he’s been filling in at that position since Tedesco’s debut. He’s been tested and it’s gone well but if we can see that it’s not his position. In the centre of defence, Jan Vertonghen, on the left, should be partnered by Wout Faes, who is the favourite ahead of Zeno Debast. On the right, it will be Timothy Castagne, despite the return of Thomas Meunier. The defensive midfield duo would be Amadou Onana and Orel Mangala, but Youri Tielemans is coming back well and played well in England in a friendly. It’s going to be close but a priori Onana and Mangala have had more playing time under Tedesco. And for the four attacking players, at No.10 obviously Kevin De Bruyne. On the left, it will be Jérémy Doku and on the right, we can have a doubt between Dodi Lukebakio and Johan Bakayoko, who have shared the playing time. But a slight advantage to PSV’s Bakayoko, who is a bit of a favourite even though Leandro Trossard is also appreciated. Up front, we will find Romelu Lukaku. There are a lot of possibilities, that’s the strength of the national team in attack. There’s variety. In defence, there are a few doubts.” Tedesco still has a few days to clear them up.

The star: Kevin De Bruyne

Long considered one of the stars of the Belgian national team, Kevin De Bruyne has taken on this role even more on his own since the retirement of Eden Hazard and the absence of Thibaut Courtois. Supported by his vice-captain Romelu Lukaku, the Manchester City player will be the leader of the Red Devils in Germany. With 99 caps under his belt, the 32-year-old, who will turn 33 on June 28, is a formidable passer but also a good finisher, having scored 26 goals for his country. Despite a difficult season from a physical point of view, as he missed 147 days of competition (35 matches in all competitions) including 127 due to a hamstring injury, he has often shone once on the pitch with Manchester City. Indeed, he has scored 6 goals and provided 14 assists in just 20 appearances this year (15 starts). Less worn out than others who have played all year round, KDB will nevertheless have to be careful of his health to avoid being betrayed by his body again at the Euro. He will also have to find his rhythm again with the Belgians, whose last cap dates back to March 28, 2023 against Germany, over a year ago. But that’s not what worries Christophe Franken the most.

“De Bruyne’s case is quite special because he’s the captain of the team. Which hurt Thibaut Courtois a bit, as we know. But in the end, we’ve seen very little of him during the Tedesco era. He took over the team after the World Cup in Qatar. He played the first matches of the Tedesco era in Sweden and Germany, which was a friendly. He was very good. Tedesco’s system was built around De Bruyne, his captain. But in the end, we didn’t see him anymore. He was injured and then he was supposed to play the March friendlies but it was a bit tricky. On top of that, Pep Guardiola asked that he be allowed to stay at the club. Which Tedesco accepted. So in the end, we won’t see him again until the Euros. There are the two friendly matches in June. Now, De Bruyne is De Bruyne. We see him every week in the league. He’s still as impressive as ever. The problem is that he can’t maybe play every three days like he used to and so we’ll have to manage him a bit or know how to play without him in some matches. We just don’t want him to get injured before the end of the tournament. At Euro 2020 (played in 2021), we no longer had a top-form De Bruyne in the quarter-final against Italy. Obviously, we suffered a lot, without Eden Hazard as well. It was a different era. There’s no doubt we’ll need a super De Bruyne to go far. Maybe not to get out of the group which is quite easy, but to go far in the tournament. We’ll need him, that’s for sure.” Armband on his arm, KDB is ready to sweat his shirt and give his all to lead the Red Devils to the top.

The attraction: Jérémy Doku

At the age of 22, Jérémy Doku is continuing to climb the ladder one step at a time. Last summer, the Borgerhout-born player made a smooth transition from Stade Rennais and Ligue 1 to Manchester City and the Premier League. And those who thought that his transfer fee of 60 million euros could be a problem were wrong. The 2002-born player quickly showed interesting things with the Skyblues. Whether as a substitute or a starter, the lively Belgian often made his mark on the left flank, where he overshadowed Jack Grealish. A good signing, then. This season, he has taken part in 38 matches in all competitions, 19 of them as a starter. He has scored 5 goals and provided 8 assists, and his speed, dribbling and finishing ability are appreciated in England.

In Belgium, Doku’s role is different. As a leader of the new generation, he is a very important member of Tedesco’s squad, despite his young age (20 caps, 2 goals). In addition to his talent on the ball, his qualities and personality make him one of the faces that matters for our Belgian neighbours, according to the journalist from La Dernière Heure.

“He is clearly the new darling of the Belgian public. You can see it when there is a match in Brussels, he is the one who has taken over Eden Hazard’s role of “entertainer” on the pitch. He is the one who excites the crowd with a single gesture. He takes this role with a lot of pleasure, you can feel it. So clearly, Doku has become one of our big assets. He is almost at the same level as a Lukaku or a De Bruyne in terms of his footballing importance to the team, even though he is still very young. He is expected to start on the left flank, although Tedesco has already used him on the right, as is the case at Manchester City. He is thus relying on the left-footed Lukebakio and Bakayoko (…) Doku has become a key player, an attraction. The Belgian national team can sometimes be scary. No one will be happy to play against Belgium, even if the Red Devils will no longer be favourites in the last 16 or quarter-finals. They will be among the outsiders, if they are still there. But clearly, Doku will be the X factor that could tip the balance of a match. We saw it in the last match of the last Euro against Italy, the best Devil, the only one who had been good was Doku. He had almost been the man of the match. Despite the defeat, he had been impressive. We say to ourselves that if he arrives in Germany with a few more tricks and Guardiola’s tactical advice in his pocket, it could hurt.” Belgium is just waiting for that!

Belgium’s Euro 2024 Schedule

  • Belgium v Slovakia: Monday 17 June, 6pm, Deutsche Bank Park, Frankfurt

  • Belgium v Romania: Saturday 22 June, 9pm, RheinEnergieSTADION, Cologne

  • Ukraine v Belgium: Wednesday 26 June, 6pm, Mercedes-Benz Arena, Stuttgart

The 25-man Squad

Goalkeepers: Koen Casteels (Wolfsburg), Thomas Kaminski (Luton Town), Matz Sels (Nottingham Forest)

Defenders: Timothy Castagne (Fulham), Maxim De Cuyper (FC Bruges), Zeno Debast (Anderlecht), Wout Faes (Leicester City), Thomas Meunier (Trabzonspor), Arthur Theate (Stade Rennais), Jan Vertonghen (Anderlecht)

Midfielders: Yannick Carrasco (Al-Shabab), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Orel Mangala (Olympique Lyonnais), Amadou Onana (Everton), Youri Tielemans (Aston Villa), Aster Vranckx (Wolfsburg), Arthur Vermeeren (Atlético de Madrid), Axel Witsel (Atlético de Madrid)

Forwards: Johan Bakayoko (PSV Eindhoven), Charles De Ketelaere (Atalanta), Jérémy Doku (Manchester City), Romelu Lukaku (AS Roma), Dodi Lukébakio (Sevilla), Loïs Openda (RB Leipzig), Leandro Trossard (Arsenal)

Written by Mike Stempel

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