World Cup 2018: Belgium’s generation of stars looking to make their mark in Russia | Football | Sport


Little wonder then, that memories of the country’s heartbreaking defeat in the last kick of the game – delivered by a sensational David Platt volley – against England in Bologna in June 1990, still brings a nation out in a collective cold sweat.

A couple of defeats and a 0-0 draw against England in the intervening period have done little to ease the pain.

The hope of both sides is that their clash at the Kaliningrad Stadium on June 28 will be largely academic, with only a place at the top of the group rather than qualification on the line.

If that’s not the case then it’s likely to be Gareth Southgate’s men rather than Roberto Martinez’s all-star side that will be sweating over making it into the last 16.

Arguably, no squad in Russia, with the possible exception of France, can boast the kind of talent that the former Wigan and Everton boss is able to call on.

Whether it’s the creativity of Eden Hazard, the pace and power of Romelu Lukaku or the goalkeeping excellence of Thibaut Courtois, Belgium don’t just have every base covered, they also have plenty in reserve.

Georges Leekens was the manager of Belgium between 2010 and 2012 and was responsible for nurturing the then fledgling talents of Kevin De Bruyne, Lukaku and Hazard during the early days of their international careers.

Now manager of the Hungarian national team – after stints with Tunisia and Algeria – Leekens knows this Red Devils side as well as anyone.

And he believes his countrymen won’t be worrying about getting through the group stage.

Instead, they’ll have their eyes fixed firmly on international football’s biggest prize.

“This is a generation of fantastic footballers,” says Leekens. “Before they were inexperienced – that’s not the case any more. Now these players are saying, ‘We’d like to have a title – we would like to win something’.

“That didn’t happen in France (in 2016), it didn’t happen in Brazil (in 2014). Now they’re dreaming about a World Cup.

“There’s nothing wrong with that – you need ambition. Now they have to show it on the pitch. They will be one of the favourites.

“If all goes to plan then I’ll be very curious to see how they get on in the quarter-final because they’ll be up with Brazil or Germany.

“To win a World Cup, you always have to put one or two big countries out.”

To get to that stage, they’ll have to navigate their way out of Group G, a task Leekens believes is within their compass.

And if England stand in their way, he believes there’s only one winner.

“Will Belgium beat England? I think yes,” he says. “England are growing and growing every game I see them. They are in a similar situation to one that Belgium were in in 2014.

“In the beginning we had a good generation with good individual skills, with a goalscorer and a good spirit.

“Maybe, though, England don’t have the experience of this Belgium side and that’s a huge thing, particularly at a World Cup.”

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