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‘Golden generation’ may not be a curse for Belgium

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Golden generation should be a complimentary term. After all, it has the word “gold” in it. We only resuscitate our lust of precious metals when we’re trying to adorn something, by it our wrists, our loved ones, or in this case, a yet-to-win-anything soccer team. That’s why the label gets recycled and reused on any group of talented players who emerge together into a senior national team. Their sudden infusion for vitality should push a nation’s soccer to a new heights. Nobody remembers that most successful golden generations are ones that have had the label retroactively applied.

Of late, the moniker’s been a kiss of death, most notably to the Luis Figo-led Portugal sides of the mid-to-late 1990s. There’s received its most alarming wakeup call at the hands of the United States, a then-little accomplished soccer nation who managed to upset the next big thing at World Cup 2002. As Jonathan Wilson points out in today’s column at ESPN Star, Romania, England and Ivory Coast have also fallen victim to the same pressures that befell Portugal, expectations “that can make failure self-perpetuating.”

Wilson’s piece, however, is about a golden generation which may actually be coming good. Yesterday in Belgrade, Belgium scored a surprisingly lopsided 3-0 victory over Serbia in UEFA World Cup Qualifying. The three points pushed them to seven through three rounds, leaving the Red Devils tied on points with Croatia on top of Group A.

The result is a far cry from the depths Belgium has sunk to last year. Then the Belgians were completing a disappointing Euro 2012 qualifying cycle. Their failure to compete with Germany and Turkey bred doubts. Could the talent could be brought together? Their wealth of skill players across midfield seemed redundant. They lacked goal scoring, and the coach was having trouble devising a system that could get the most out of his best player.

With George Leekens gone, there is new hope Eden Hazard can be as dominant in the international game as he’s been for Lille and Chelsea. While he’s still 21 years old, Hazard has only two goals in 32 international appearances, form that (coupled with questions about his commitment) often left him out of Leekens’ starting XIs. After Leekens was replaced by Marc Wilmots in May, the new Belgium boss sought to “create a special role for Eden”.

Early returns have been discouraging. Hazard scored has second international goal in Wilmots’ debut, though he’s since failed to reappear on the scoresheet. In Belgrade, he was taken off early in the second half, a move Wilmots said “injected fresh blood into the team.” If Belgium is going to make a leap out of the Leekens-era, they may need to do so without the leadership of their best player.

The rest of Belgium’s Golden Generation will have to pick up the slack, one of the many reasons the Belgrade result was so encouraging. Christian Benteke, 21, opened the scoring the Serbia. His second international goal hints the Aston Villa-man can be the scorer the Devils so desperately need.. Fellow 21-year-old Kevin De Bruyne doubled their league, with relative veteran Kevin Mirallas, 25, scoring in second half stoppage time.

Although Hazard, Benteke, De Bruyne and 20-year-old goalkeeper Thibault Courtois are among the squad’s more notable players, they’re merely augmenting what is Belgium’s true golden generation. Of the 24 players Wilmots called in this break, 17 are between the ages of 23 and 26, a group that includes Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Axel Whitsel, Moussa Dembele, and Steven Defour.

That’s the core of the team, a core that disappointed when they failed to qualify them for Poland-Ukraine. Now, with the 21-year-olds assuming starting roles on the team, there’s reason to think Belgium can improve. With that enviable collection of talent, expectations remain high, even if cynicism has grown. In a group with Serbia and Croatia, Belgium should still be expected to claim one of the top two spots, even if 2012’s qualifying tells us to be prepared for anything.

Those doubts – that cynicism – is why yesterday’s result is so big for the Belgians. They went on the road, beat a team that qualified for the 2012 World Cup, and got three goals. The won in a way that will force critics (and perhaps, themselves) to reassess their doubts. Christian Benteke may fill their greatest need, and with Hazard still struggling to be the threat he is at club level, there’s reason to think Belgium can improve still.

If there’s cause for caution, it’s less likely to be found in the Belgians’ talents than in the history of golden generations. As Brian Phillips dives into when speaking of England’s, there is a point in a golden generation’s ascendance where potential could possibly give way to actual, historic results. Then attention happens. Then celebrity happens. In the case of England, the stars of Gerrard, Lampard, Terry, Ferdinand and Cole may have heighted the golden generation curse. For other groups that don’t have to navigate the insatiable world of London tabloid drama, the professional distractions of success can take a toll. Players like Hazard, Kompany, and Vermaelen play for clubs who will place significant demands on their players.

Although a golden generation does provide a huge, simultaneous talent infusion, it also risks players going through the downs of their maturation processes at the same time. Most will sign professional contracts around the same time. Their first breakthroughs for club and country will fall in line, and as they spend their early-20s coming into their own, most will make their first big club move around the same time. Eight players from Beglium’s squad have changed teams within the last four months. Eight players have taken on similar distractions and risks.

Friday’s win provides a focal point – a way to see through the expectations, past failures, and distractions to a glimpse of what the Red Devils can become. After a 1-1 home draw against Croatia in the previous qualifier, the result gives Belgium reason to believe they’re still moving forward. They can still be golden.

“This generation will shine at their brightest in the years to come,” Wilcots told FIFA.com. “[T]hey’re still young and can improve a lot. The likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Christian Benteke are only 20 years old and are not yet established regulars for their clubs. We have to be realistic and give them time.”

“We’ve managed to build a group of 25 players who are moving forward, but it’s going to be tough all the way to the end [of the qualifying competition] … we must stay humble and realise that it will all be decided in matches nine and ten. If we go through the play-offs, our experience as a team will be much better and so, too, will our chances of reaching Brazil.”

AT THE HALF: Man City 1-2 Monaco; Atleti lead in UCL round of 16

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Radamel Falcao Garcia of AS Monaco celebrates as he scores their first and equalising goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester City FC and AS Monaco at Etihad Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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We’re only halfway through the first leg of Manchester City versus Monaco, and Bayer Leverkusen versus Atletico Madrid, in the UEFA Champions League round of 16, but the goals are coming fast and furious from England to Germany.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

Man City found themselves 1-0 up at the Etihad Stadium, when Leroy Sane turned on video-game mode to set up Raheem Sterling for the opening goal in the 28th minute. But, as City have so typically done in the Champions League, they began self-destructing four minutes later. Radamel Falcao‘s diving header brought Monaco level in the 32nd minute, and Kylian Mbappe’s finish over the head of Willy Caballero put the visitors 2-1 up eight minutes later.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

As for Tuesday’s other round-of-16 tie, Saul Niguez simultaneously opened the scoring and snatched the soul of every Bayer defender who dared to contest him. Antoine Griezmann added a second for Atleti, who hold their 2-0 lead at halftime, seven minutes later.

LIVE: UCL last 16 – Man City v Monaco; Bayer v Atletico Madrid

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 06:  Sergio Aguero of Manchester City celebrates after scoring his sides fourth goal during The Emirates FA Cup Third Round match between West Ham United and Manchester City at London Stadium on January 6, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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Two more UEFA Champions League Round of 16 clashes get underway on Tuesday.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

Manchester City host AS Monaco at the Etihad Stadium with Pep Guardiola knowing his shaky defense must stay strong against the leading scorers in France’s top-flight. Monaco have already come to England and beaten Tottenham Hotspur in the UCL group stage and under talented manager Leanardo Jardim the likes of Radamel Falcao looks fired up and ready to go.

That said, City have been much better in recent weeks and have shown their best form this season in the UCL. Remember, Pep has never failed to reach the semifinals of this competition as a manager. Quite the record.

Elsewhere Bayer Leverkusen welcome Atletico Madrid to the BayArena with Mexico’s Javier Hernandez back among the goals and aiming to give the Bundesliga outfit a lead to take with them to Madrid.

The runners up late season, Atleti are currently fourth in La Liga but Diego Simeone’s side have looked stellar in Europe this season once again as they finished above Bayern Munich to win their group. Expect a tense, tough game in Germany.

Click on the link above to follow live commentary on both games, while we will have reaction and analysis on all of the UCL knockout games here at Pro Soccer Talk.


Tuesday’s UCL Round of 16, first legs

Manchester City vs. AS Monaco – 2:45 p.m. ET
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Atletico Madrid – 2:45 p.m. ET

Bayern defends Ancelotti for middle-finger gesture to fans

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MUNICH (AP) Bayern Munich has defended coach Carlo Ancelotti for raising his middle finger to Hertha Berlin fans after supposedly being spit at following a dramatic 1-1 draw in the Bundesliga.

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Bayern says “basically we find the human reaction of Carlo Ancelotti with the gesture to be emotionally understandable after the nasty spitting attack.”

Robert Lewandowski’s injury-time equalizer for Bayern on Saturday prompted altercations between Bayern and Hertha players in a heated atmosphere at the Olympic Stadium.

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The German soccer federation ended its investigation into the matter after Ancelotti agreed to pay 5,000 euros ($5,300) to its foundation for social work.

In 2014, Norbert Duewel, then-coach of second-division club Union Berlin, was fined 3,500 euros for raising his middle finger in a 4-1 loss at home against 1860 Munich.

Sacha Kljestan ready to take reigns as Red Bulls captain

HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 6:  Sacha Kljestan #16 of New York Red Bulls dribbles past Steven Beitashour #33 of Toronto FC  during their match at Red Bull Arena on March 6, 2016 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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When news began to spread of a trade regarding one of Major League Soccer’s most recognizable faces, Sacha Kljestan was with his New York Red Bulls teammate at the U.S. Men’s National Team’s January camp.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

The clarity over Dax McCarty’s move to Eastern Conference foe Chicago Fire is very much uncertain — even a month after the fact — but the veteran midfielder’s absence left an opening for the Red Bulls captaincy.

[ MORE: PST talks with Atlanta president Darren Eales ahead of 2017 ]

And that was an opportunity that Kljestan was honored to be named.

“I was just proud. My first feeling was that I’m thankful for Jesse [Marsch] having that trust in me and my teammates having that trust in me as well, which is very important,” Kljestan said. “But I just feel very proud to represent Jesse and the coaching staff and represent every member of the club that works with the New York Red Bulls. Most importantly I want to represent the fans in a way that they are proud of.”

Fortunately for the Red Bulls, what they have had over the past two seasons in Kljestan is a player that not only provides flash and brilliance on the pitch but also stability off the field and in the locker room.

Since making his return to MLS in 2015, Kljestan has notched an astounding 34 assists — the most of any player during that span — to go along with his 14 goals.

Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch has been impressed with Kljestan’s work ethic since bringing in the Designated Player, and he says little thought needed to be put into naming the U.S. international his squad’s next captain.

“It almost wasn’t even a choice at all,” Marsch said in regards to naming Kljestan his primary captain. “He had served as basically a vice-captain for two years and it was an natural fit. There were discussions with the staff but I think it was pretty clear that this is a guy that is a top leader. That being said, we’ve said all along that the captain isn’t a one man job.

“It’s about a community of people and certainly the two guys that will support Sacha the most will be Luis [Robles] and Brad [Wright-Phillips]. I think the three of them will take on big leadership roles and there’s room for young guys to blossom into bigger leadership positions as well.”

The Red Bulls have undoubtedly proven their success in the regular season since rebranding to the aforementioned name in 2006 when the Global giant, Red Bull, acquired the franchise.

The last 11 seasons have provided the club with plenty to cheer about, including two Supporters’ Shield crowns and only missing out on the postseason once, but the Red Bulls have struggled to get past one major hurdle.

Winning an MLS Cup is challenging.

It’s only something that 11 teams have accomplished in the league’s history. Of those 11 teams, only five of them have won two or more titles since MLS’ inception in 1996.

Marsch’s approach since day one has been very clear to both his team and the opponents that the Red Bulls face. The goal has been to play an attacking-minded press, similar to that of Barcelona in the club’s hay day.

While that pressing style likely won’t change, the team is prepared to add another dimension to its attack by switching to a two-forward setup starting in 2017.

“With our little tweak in formation that we’re doing now, we’re trying to be less susceptible to opening ourselves up and creating too much space between our lines,” Kljestan said. “We’re working on ways now to become more connected and become harder to break down and really make teams earn their chances against us. We might go through some growing pains with the formation but I think it’ll make us stronger in the long run.”

The Red Bulls begin their 2017 journey on Wednesday when they face the Vancouver Whitecaps in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The two sides will meet a second time on March 2 in Vancouver.