De Bruyne, Lukaku still the keys for rebuilding Belgium

De Bruyne said at the time Belgium were "too old" and new boss Domenico Tedesco, just 38, is leading an overhaul of the team while still relying on a smaller core of elder statesmen.
Kevin De Bruyne (L) and Romelu Lukaku
Kevin De Bruyne (L) and Romelu Lukaku(Photo | X @BelRedDevils)

PARIS: A woeful 2022 World Cup campaign marred by infighting marked the end of the road for much of Belgium's venerated golden generation, but two integral figures, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, remain in a squad comprising plenty of fresh faces.

After the high of a third-place finish at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Belgium failed to live up to expectations in Qatar with an ageing side, and Eden Hazard's retirement accompanied the departure of coach Roberto Martinez before others followed suit in the months to come.

De Bruyne said at the time Belgium were "too old" and new boss Domenico Tedesco, just 38, is leading an overhaul of the team while still relying on a smaller core of elder statesmen.

Belgium cruised through Group F unbeaten with Lukaku blasting in 14 goals to set a new European Championship qualifying record and taking him to 83 at international level, seventh most in men's history just behind Hungarian great Ferenc Puskas (84).

Under Tedesco, Belgium are unbeaten in 13 matches but few of those fixtures have come against Europe's heavyweights.

His reward was a two-year contract extension in March that runs until the 2026 World Cup, but this summer's tournament will offer a better indication of the strength of a nation that held the top FIFA ranking uninterrupted between 2018 and 2022 yet underachieved on the biggest stage.

The 37-year-old Jan Vertonghen, Belgium's record caps holder with 154, provides invaluable experience at the back but Thibaut Courtois is absent after missing much of the season for Real Madrid.

The 32-year-old ruptured the cruciate ligament in his left knee last August and then suffered a meniscus injury in March.

Courtois 'not ready'

Despite recently returning to action and starting the Champions League final win over Borussia Dortmund, Courtois had already ruled himself out of the Euros in December.

He had been on frosty terms with Tedesco since being overlooked as captain last year following an injury to De Bruyne.

"He was very honest with me," said Tedesco. "He knows his body. It is one thing to play three or four matches, but another to play the Euros."

Tedesco added: "He is not ready for the Euros, and we have to play with those who are able to."

Matz Sels, who made a winter transfer deadline-day move to Nottingham Forest, appears likely to deputise for Courtois and Leicester's Wout Faes formed a solid pairing in central defence with Vertonghen during the qualifiers.

The versatile Axel Witsel, 35, has been coaxed out of international retirement, but Toby Alderweireld is gone from the team at the last World Cup.

Youri Tielemans, Amadou Onana and Orel Mangala are among the midfield options for a team crossing its fingers that De Bruyne arrives in Germany fully fit.

The Manchester City playmaker scored on his 100th cap in Wednesday's 2-0 win over Montenegro, his first appearance for Belgium since March 2023.

He sat out all but one of the Euro qualifiers with a troublesome hamstring that cost him the first half of the season.

Since his return De Bruyne has looked as good as ever though and will reprise the role of Belgium's creator-in-chief at his sixth major tournament.

With Hazard and Dries Mertens no longer involved, and Michy Batshuayi omitted, the likes of Lois Openda, Charles De Ketelaere and Jeremy Doku must shoulder more of the responsibility in attack.

Leandro Trossard is coming off a fine first full season with Arsenal and the presence of 21-year-old PSV winger Johan Bakayoko offers Belgium another youthful option going forward.

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