‘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.”

Three key battles in Man City vs. Man United

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Ahead of the massive Manchester derby on Thursday at the Etihad Stadium (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) both Manchester City and Manchester United have some massive absentees through injury with Paul Pogba and Zlaan

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That being said, there are still plenty of stars who will be out on the pitch and both Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will be sure to surprise many with their team selections. With City in fourth place but just one point and one place ahead of United, this game will be crucial in the race for UEFA Champions League qualification.

[ MORE: Manchester derby, team news ]

Below is a look at three key battles on the pitch which will determine the outcome of the game.


Vincent Kompany vs. Marcus Rashford

This will perhaps be the most pivotal individual battle on the pitch. With Vincent Kompany back fit, Man City’s defense has looked incredibly solid. The Belgian star will have his hands full with a fired up Marcus Rashford though. The local lad scored the winner at the Eithad last season and with Zlatan Ibrahimovic out injured the 19-year-old has stepped up big in recent weeks. Kompany will look to step high and intercept balls into Rashford early but we all now have deceptively strong Rashford is and if he can turn Kompany early then there’s no way City’s skipper will catch him in a straight race.

Kevin De Bruyne vs. Ander Herrera

In the 2-1 win for City at United back in September (man, that seems like a long time ago) Kevin de Bruyne tore United’s midfield apart. In the first half of that game he scored the opener and his shot off the post fell to Kelechi Iheanacho for City’s second as Guardiola deployed KDB in a slightly unfamiliar central role. He was much more attacking at Old Trafford and kept winning the ball back in key area in front of United’s defense. Ander Herrera started that game on the bench that day and Mourinho brought him on at half time to quell the threat of KDB, which he did. Guardiola may play De Bruyne deeper, as he did against Arsenal recently, but the Belgian will have to get by Herrera. The Spaniard has been a terrier in Mourinho’s midfield and is having a fine season. Herrera did a wonderful man-marking job on Eden Hazard last weekend and after shaking off an injury, don’t be surprised if Mourinho puts him up against De Bruyne.

Sergio Aguero vs. Eric Bailly

Guardiola had an injury concern about Aguero but the Argentine is fit and ready and that’s bad news for United. He took his goal superbly well in the FA Cup semifinal to Arsenal at the weekend and Aguero is now second all-time in City’s goalscorers, scoring in his last five PL games on the troy. Eric Bailly has been been forced to play a lot of games this season and he went the full 120 minutes against Anderlecht last Thursday and then the full 90 against Burnley on Sunday. With Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo out through injury, Bailly will have to play again (Daley Blind will likely partner him) and his battle with Aguero will be crucial. Not to mention Aguero has eight goals in 10 appearances against United

Transfer rumors: De Gea out, Oblak in; Van Dijk to Liverpool

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We are edging towards May and that means two things: the Premier League season is almost over and the transfer rumor mill is about to switch back into overdrive.

[ MORE: Manchester derby team news ]

The latest reports from Spain state that Manchester United are willing to let David De Gea leave this summer if the right deal can be reached with Real Madrid.

Spanish radio station Onda Cero state that Jose Mourinho is ready to listen to offers for De Gea and Real Madrid are in pole position to sign the goalkeeper they came so close to acquiring in the summer 2015. I wonder if that fax machine has been replaced…

Anyway, with DDG reportedly on the move, who would United bring in? The Manchester Evening News states that Jan Oblak’s agent has flown into Manchester for meetings and although the Slovenian stopper (La Liga’s goalkeeper of the season in 2015-16) has a release clause of $109 million, it is reported that a deal can be struck for the 24-year-old who is close friends with Atletico teammate, and another United target, Antoine Griezmann.

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Elsewhere in England’s north west, the Liverpool Echo state that Liverpool are willing to pay a club record $64.1 million for Southampton’s Virgil Van Dijk.

VVD, 25, is among the best center backs in the Premier League and has been named Southampton’s team captain in just his second season at St Mary’s following his $18 million move from Celtic in September 2015.

Per the report, and pretty much common knowledge, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal are all said to be interested in signing Van Dijk this summer.

Van Dijk has been out with a foot injury since January but his impressive displays over the past two seasons mean he is a prime target for several of the PL’s top teams. With Liverpool’s woes clear and Jurgen Klopp‘s men aiming to hang on for a top four finish in the PL this season, securing UEFA Champions League action will surely be crucial in landing Van Dijk.

Saints have stated many times that Van Dijk is not for sale but every player has his price. If Chelsea and other get involved, the bidding war for Van Dijk could get out of hand very, very quickly.

Manchester derby: Pogba out, Gabriel ready, Zlatan update

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Ahead of the massive Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday between Manchester City and Manchester United (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) there has been some significant team news.

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Jose Mourinho has confirmed that midfielder Paul Pogba will not play for United after hobbling off late on against Burnley on Sunday, while Pep Guardiola has confirmed that star midfield David Silva is a serious doubt.

Speaking in their respective press conferences ahead of the massive clash between the bitter rivals both managers played down the importance of the match despite their being just one point and one place between the teams with City sitting in fourth place, the final UEFA Champions League spot.

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Mourinho simply confirmed that Pogba would not be fit but also stated that Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia would be available while Chris Smalling and Phil Jones remain out. Mourinho also gave an update on Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s future at Manchester United as the 35-year-old has flown to the USA to undergo knee surgery to try and salvage his career.

Zlatan only had a contract until this summer at United and has been linked with signing another deal, moving to China or heading to Major League Soccer. Mourinho said he wasn’t sure if Ibrahimovic would be at United next season and instead praised his fighting spirit.

“I just want the difficult surgery to go, for him to recover from the injury and prepare for the next step,” Mourinho said. “I think the next step will be something that he really wants, which is what I was saying before the injury in the period of doubt about his future.”

Guardiola stated that Brazilian striker Gabriel Jesus is ready to be in the matchday squad after recovering from a broken metatarsal but he said it would be tough for Silva to play but did confirm Sergio Aguero is fit.

“David Silva real, real doubt – I don’t know if he will be ready to play after what happened in the first minutes in the semi-final,” Guardiola said. “Gabriel has no pain at all so is ready but [after] three months out his physical condition is not optimal. Sergio is much better. Today he make a part of the training session. Tomorrow he will be ready.”

At this hectic time of the season both City and United have struggled with injuries to key players throughout the campaign and it is perhaps United who have dealt better with those absences. There’s no doubt that losing top scorer Ibrahimovic for the rest of the season was a huge blow but Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney and Marcus Rashford are ready to step up in his absence with Martial and Rooney scoring in the 2-0 victory at Burnley last time out.

Who will come in for Pogba? Expect Herrera and Michael Carrick to start in central midfield in perhaps a 4-2-3-1 formation with Lingard, Rooney and Mkhitaryan ahead of them and Rashford up top.

For City, they will likely start Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne and Fabian Delph in central midfield in Silva’s absence but Guardiola must be worried about losing Silva as the Spaniard has made City tick all season long. Coupled with the long-term absence of Ilkay Gundogan and Vincent Kompany (who returned to action recently) City’s midfield and defensive unit has struggled to cope with injuries all season long.

Expect this Manchester derby to be a slugfest between two ailing teams.

David Moyes charged by FA for “slap” comments

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Sunderland manager David Moyes has been charged by the English Football Association after he was filmed telling a female BBC reporter “you still might get a slap even though you’re a woman,” and warned her to “be careful” the next time she came to their Stadium of Light home.

[ MORE: Barton banned 18 months ]

Moyes, 53, has since apologized for the outburst which occurred after a post-match interview following Sunderland’s 0-0 draw with Burnley. He believed the cameras had stopped rolling but his comments were filmed on a cell phone.

The Sunderland manager has his team rooted to the foot of the Premier League table, 12 points off safety with six games remaining.

Below is the statement in full from The FA:

David Moyes has been charged in relation to comments made after the game against Burnley on 18 March 2017.

It is alleged the Sunderland manager’s remarks were improper and/or threatening and/or brought the game into disrepute, contrary to FA Rule E3(1).  He has until 6pm on 3 May 2017 to reply to the charge.