BELGIUM’S SO-CALLED GOLDEN generation are shaken but not stirred. That’s the opinion at least of a man who has played a pivotal role in hoisting the European Kingdom back to the top table of world football.
Much is expected of this Belgium side, the costliest squad (€400m) at Euro 2016, with so many big names from some of the continent’s top clubs at the disposal of coach Marc Wilmots.
The Red Devils failed to inspire in their opening fixture of the tournament — a lacklustre 2-0 defeat at the hands of Antonio Conte’s Italy on Monday night — but Wilmots’ predecessor Georges Leekens is confident Belgium will prove their resilience when they take on Ireland in Bordeaux on Saturday afternoon (2pm kick-off).
“I know this group very well and they will stand up,” Leekens, who has managed Belgium on two occasions, told The42.
“They are not going down for sure. They have enough character, they have enough intelligence, to put Belgium back on track.
“They are very proud, Belgian people are very proud of their national team and the players will react against Ireland. That’s the most important thing at this moment.”
Leekens was one of the main architects behind what some consider to be a Belgian football revolution. A movement that has seen the nation soar to number two in the Fifa world rankings and scores of their players become household names across the globe.
The 67-year-old, who these days holds the reins of Lokeren in the Belgian Pro League, the nation’s top tier, admitted he was surprised by the opening-round loss to Italy but is taking solace in the fact that the fate of the Red Devils remains in their own hands.
“Italy won because we did not play to the level that our group can,” added Leekens, who coached Belgium to a two-legged playoff win against Ireland in 1997 to deny Mick McCarthy’s side a spot at the 1998 World Cup in France.
“We had a bad start but that doesn’t mean that the tournament has to be bad.
“Look at Spain, they lost their first game at the World Cup [in 2010 v Switzerland] and then they went on to win the World Cup.”
Technical ability, speed on the counter-attack, and a fluid 4-3-3 formation are at the heart of Leekens’ football philosophy, and consequently also that of the country.
Putting emphasis on development, rather than success, has started to bear fruit in recent years with the emergence of world-class Belgian talents such as Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois and Romelu Lukaku, to name but a few.
However, it means little unless major tournaments start going to plan. The Belgian public are desperate for them to match the heroics of yesteryear; a runners-up finish at the 1980 European Championships, and a semi-final spot at the 1986 World Cup their standout results.
After a relatively disappointing World Cup campaign in Brazil two years ago, that concluded with a quarter-final defeat to eventual finalists Argentina, the pressure is building on Belgium’s golden boys to produce the goods.
But Leekens isn’t overly concerned right now. He felt that Wilmots’ side were caught on the hop by a wily Italian outfit on Monday night.
And he warns Ireland that Belgium will be much sharper with 90 minutes under their belt, particularly the likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne who haven’t played that much football in recent months.
“Italy played a very smart game and now we are under pressure to play well against Ireland.
“Belgium have a lot of talented individuals but as a team they didn’t play well enough.
“Eden Hazard was coming back after injury, Kevin De Bruyne was coming back after injury and they have to find a little bit their level.
“I know the players and they have a lot of confidence. We have a top goalkeeper, top goal-scorers and a fantastic midfield but we have to show every game that we play at the highest level.”
Leekens was impressed with Ireland in their Stade de France stalemate with Sweden but he believes he has the blueprint to ensure Martin O’Neill’s side don’t cause an upset on Saturday — it’s about playing to Belgium’s technical strengths; dominating possession, keeping it on the deck, and frustrating their opponents.
“The way Ireland are playing you can see their strong points; engagement, teamwork and spirit.
“Belgium can’t play the same game Ireland are playing, otherwise they will lose.
“They need to keep the ball, play over the pressure and try to find space. There is no point in playing the long ball because Ireland are strong in that area. They need to play in triangles, play with speed, lots of movement and play it forward.”
Leekens wouldn’t speculate on possible changes in Belgian personnel but admitted he would not be surprised to see a couple of alterations. However, he insists Wilmots, nor his squad, won’t panic, they’re experienced enough to know better.
“I think this team is very good, they maybe lacked rhythm against Italy. But they are ranked second in the world for good reason. Just because they lost one game against Italy does not mean that they will have doubts now,” he added.
“I don’t think they will lose two games in a row, they are not used to it. There is a winning mentality in this group. They will have learned their lessons and will be ready on Saturday.
“We are better than we played against Italy. We have players who will come back strong because the Belgian mentality is strong and I think they will show that against Ireland.”
– An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Belgium were runners up at the 1986 European Championships; they were runners up in 1980.
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