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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.”

LIVE – Europa League group stage finale: Saints, Man United in crucial deciders

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 03:  Virgil van Dijk of Southampton celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the UEFA Europa League Group K match between Southampton FC and FC Internazionale Milano at St Mary's Stadium on November 3, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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This is it, don’t get scared now.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

Premier League duo Southampton and Manchester United both go into their final group game of the UEFA Europa League needing to avoid defeat if their going to make the knockout rounds.

For United, their task is simple. Jose Mourinho’s men need just a point from their trip to Ukraine to play Zorya Luhansk to advance to the Round of 32, while a win could see them finish top depending on the result of the Feyenoord vs. Fenerbache game.

As for Southampton, it’s a little bit more complicated.

A win for Claude Puel‘s side at home against Hapoel Be’er Sheva at a sold out St Mary’s would see them safely through to the knockout rounds of the Europa League for the first time in club history. A 0-0 draw would also do the trick but a score draw (1-1, 2-2, 3-3 etc) would send the reigning Israeli champions through instead as they’d have the advantage in head-to-head away goals after the duo drew 0-0 in Israel back in October. Making the knockout rounds of this competition would be a huge deal for Southampton and would keep their cup momentum going after they reached the semifinals of the EFL Cup last week.

[ MORE: Europa League standings ]   

Elsewhere there is plenty on the line across the 12 groups, with the standings page in the link above very handy to work out the permutations as the top two teams from each group (first place team is seeded, the second unseeded) advance to the Round of 32 and will be joined by the eight teams who finished third in their respective groups in the UEFA Champions League group stage.

Below is the full schedule for Thursday’s game which kick off in three separate time slots, while you can follow live commentary and stats on the games by clicking on the link above.


Full Europa League schedule, Thursday Dec. 8

11 a.m. ET
Konyarspor vs. Gent
Qarabag vs. Fiorentina
Osmanlispor vs. Zurich
Braga vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
Villarreal vs. Steaua Bucuresti
PAOK vs. Liberece

1 p.m. ET
Vikrotia Plzen vs. Austria Wien
Apoel Nicosia vs. Olympiacos
Sassuolo vs. Genk
Anderlecht vs. Saint-Etienne
Zorya Luhansk vs. Manchester United
Rapid Wien vs. Athletic Bilbao
Young Boys vs. Astana
AZ Alkmaar vs. Zenit Saint Petersburg
Feyenoord vs. Fenerbahce
Maccabi Tel-Aviv vs. Dundalk
Mainz vs. Gabala
Astra Giurgiu vs. Roma

3:05 p.m. ET
Panathinaikos vs. Celta Vigo
Standard Liege vs. Ajax
Inter Milan vs. Sparta Prague
Southampton vs. Hapoel Be’er Sheva
RB Salzburg vs. Schalke
Nice vs. Krasnodar

Bob Bradley will remain in charge, says Swansea chairman

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With reports circulating in the British press that American coach Bob Bradley could be fired after just seven games in charge of Swansea City, their chairman has publicly backed the former U.S. national team head coach.

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Bradley, 58, has just one win in his opening seven games in charge of the Swans who currently sit bottom of the Premier League table on nine points, three points off safety.

That poor form, coupled with many other issues at the club, has reportedly prompted new American owners Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien (they took over as majority owners in July) to conduct an extensive review of every department at the club.

However, chairman Huw Jenkins has moved to quell rumors about Bradley becoming the second Swansea manager to be fired through the opening 14 games of the season.

“I don’t know where that story came from, but it’s natural in football that everyone wants and needs results. But the last thing we need at this moment of time is a continual change in manager. We need stability first and foremost,” Jenkins told talkSPORT. “Take a team like Fulham, they changed managers three times in the season they tried to stave off relegation and we’re in a similar position now.”

“Perhaps in the summer I could have made a better decision – from pre-season onwards I don’t think things were right, it was too flat at the club. That had a knock-on effect and obviously it’s taken us a while to work through it. But we’re with Bob now to try and turn that corner – that’s what we’re working towards. We look at the January window as a chance to reinforce things. There are players not hitting the form levels they have done in the past and we have to find out why that is and get that right as well.”

So, it seems that sense is prevailing after all.

Jenkins took the blame for Swansea’s poor start to the season in media interviews on Wednesday and now the long-time chairman is backing his manager.

The south Wales businessman was part of a consortium which saved Swansea in 2004 and then led them on an incredible journey up from the fourth-tier to the Premier League, plus winning the League Cup and getting to the group stages of the Europa League. He and other directors have come in for some serious stick from Swansea’s fans for selling their stake to the new American owners and Jenkins is believed to have made just over $10 million from selling 8.2 percent of his 13.2 percent stake in the club.

On the pitch, it’s difficult to blame Bradley for the current situation Swansea finds itself in.

After some woeful moves in the transfer window last summer (Jenkins has admitted they weren’t great with Ashley Williams and Andre Ayew allowed to leave for big profits but their replacements just haven’t been good enough) the American coach needs at least one transfer window to bring in better players and the Swans are only three points off safety with a pivotal stretch of six games to come in the Premier League.

Home games against Sunderland, West Ham and Bournemouth, plus trips to West Brom, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace will see the Swans go up against direct relegation rivals between now and Jan. 3.

The next four weeks will be huge not only for Swansea’s future but also for Bradley and ahead of their crunch home game against Sunderland on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) the American coach is eager to cut out defensive mistakes as the Swans have now conceded 19 goals in his seven games in charge.

“When you are a manager it (the pressure) goes with the territory,” Bradley said. “It is work as usual, knowing from the beginning when I got here that it would be a big challenge, and it is. When you see a scoreline like that it is easy to jump on us. We are not going to survive if we keep on conceding goals like this.”

Man United’s Europa League clash in doubt over frozen pitch

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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Manchester United and Jose Mourinho may not play their UEFA Europa League game against Zorya Luhansk on Thursday.

[ MORE: Ozil, Sanchez leaving Arsenal? ]

Amid freezing conditions in the Ukrainian city of Odessa (Zorya cannot play their games at home due to the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine) the pitch underwent an inspection on Thursday and with covers and heaters on the playing surface overnight, there is hope the game should go ahead.

However, Jose Mourinho has already talked about the state of the pitch as not being ideal, while the likes of Daley Blind and Paul Pogba looked far from impressed when they went out for a training session on Wednesday in freezing conditions.

Remember, United only needs a point from the game against Zorya to qualify for the Europa League Round of 32 and Mourinho has selected a strong 19-man squad for the trip. 

A statement from Zorya said the following on Thursday morning, as they remain hopeful of the game going ahead.

“Everything depends on the weather. The pitch is not brilliant at the moment. We are expecting temperatures of two or three degrees and everything should be okay.”

Below was the scene in Odessa yesterday for United’s training session, via Simon Peach of the Press Association.


Yep, the pitch doesn’t look great.

Barcelona invites Chapecoense to play friendly

CHAPECO, BRAZIL - OCTOBER 22: Supporters of Chapecoense cheer their team during the match between Chapecoense and Sao Paulo for the Brazilian Series A 2014 at Arena Conda on October 22, 2014 in Chapeco, Brazil. (Photo by Alan Pedro/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has extended an invitation to host a friendly match against the Brazilian soccer club involved in last week’s plane crash.

Chapecoense was on its way to the final of the Copa Sudamericana, one of South America’s most prestigious club tournaments, when its flight went down in Colombia, killing all but six of the 77 players, officials and journalists on board.

The match would be played in August. The friendly, called the Joan Gamper trophy, is used as Barcelona’s traditional curtain raiser for the new season.

Barcelona says it sent a formal invitation to Chapecoense on Thursday.

Barcelona says it wants to “pay homage to the 71 people who died in the accident as well as their families.”