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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.”

Netherlands coach Danny Blind leaves Depay off squad

AP Photo/Jon Super
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THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) Manchester United winger Memphis Depay was left out of the Netherlands squad on Friday for a friendly against Greece followed by its first World Cup qualifier against Sweden.

Veteran strikers Klaas-Jan Huntelaar of Schalke and Robin Van Persie of Fenerbahce were also omitted from coach Danny Blind’s 24-man squad, while a debut was given to 21-year-old PSV Eindhoven midfielder Jorrit Hendrix.

Blind appeared to be opting for youth over experience in the qualification campaign for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but that policy did not help 22-year-old Depay, who has struggled for form since moving from PSV Eindhoven to Old Trafford last year.

“It’s important for him to first focus fully on getting into the first team at Manchester United,” Blind said. “From there, he needs to play more and hopefully he will then put himself back in the picture.”

Tottenham’s new striker, Vincent Janssen, will look to continue his impressive international form – the former AZ Alkaar star has three goals in five matches since making his debut in March.

The Netherlands, which failed to qualify for the European Championship, takes on Greece on Thursday in Eindhoven, and plays its first Group A qualifier against Sweden in Solna on Sept. 6.

Netherlands:

Goalkeepers: Jasper Cillessen (Barcelona), Maarten Stekelenburg (Everton), Jeroen Zoet (PSV Eindhoven).

Defenders: Patrick Van Aanholt (Sunderland), Daley Blind (Manchester United), Jeffrey Bruma (Wolfsburg), Virgil Van Dijk (Southampton), Kenny Tete (Ajax), Joel Veltman (Ajax), Ron Vlaar (AZ Alkmaar), Jetro Willems (PSV).

Midfielders: Riechedly Bazoer (Ajax), Jorrit Hendrix (PSV), Davy Klaassen (Ajax), Davy Proepper (PSV), Wesley Sneijder (Galatasaray), Kevin Strootman (Roma), Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool).

Forwards: Steven Berghuis (Feyenoord), Bas Dost (Wolfsburg), Vincent Janssen (Tottenham Hotspur), Luuk De Jong (PSV), Luciano Narsingh(PSV), Quincy Promes (Spartak Moscow).

MLS Snapshot: Real Salt Lake 2-1 Colorado Rapids (video)

Movsisyan
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The game in 100 words (or less): If either team has proved anything this season it’s that they’re both extremely hard to beat at home. Real Salt Lake battled back to fend off the Rapids on Friday night at Rio Tinto Stadium, and in the process picked up a vital three points to get Jeff Cassar’s side back in the race for the top spot in the Western Conference. Both teams sit on 43 points, just two points behind FC Dallas. RSL had every chance to create further separation between the two sides, but two late penalty kick misses kept the scoreline locked at 2-1. Despite Tim Howard‘s best efforts to keep the visitors in the game, making four big stops on the night, the Rapids couldn’t end RSL’s 13-match home unbeaten streak.

[ MORE: Sounders, Timbers meet again in major conference clash ]

Three moments that mattered 

5′ — Gashi provides Rapids with early lead — Sometimes you’ve just got to be in the right place at the right time.

39′ — Rapids can’t clear it, Movsisyan makes them pay — It was a bit lucky to take the initial deflection but Movsisyan always seems to be in the right spot at the right time.

48′ — Movsisyan hands RSL the lead — Early candidate for Goal of the Week after the RSL striker turned away from two Rapids defenders and blasted his chance past Tim Howard.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Yura Movsisyan

Goalscorers: Shkelzen Gashi (5′), Yura Movsisyan (39′, 48′)

PSG loans goalkeeper Sirigu to Spanish side Sevilla

FLORENCE, ITALY - MAY 26:  Salvatore Sirigu of Italy speaks to the media during a press conference at the club's training ground at Coverciano on May 26, 2016 in Florence, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
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SEVILLA, Spain (AP) French champion Paris Saint-Germain has loaned goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu to Spanish club Sevilla until the end of the season.

PSG said in a statement on Friday that Europa League winner Sevilla has an option to buy Sirigu at the end of his loan spell.

Sirigu will compete with Sergio Rico for the starting job on a Sevilla side being rebuilt under new coach Jorge Sampaoli.

The 29-year-old Sirigu, who has played 17 times for Italy, was a mainstay in the PSG side until Kevin Trapp replaced him as No. 1 last season.

Sirigu made 190 appearances for PSG after joining in 2011, winning four league titles, two French Cups, and three League Cups.

But his chances looked even more limited this season, with PSG recalling `keeper Alphonse Areola from a loan spell in Spain with Villarreal.

Lewandowski hat-trick caps impressive Bayern win in Bundesliga return

MUNICH, GERMANY - OCTOBER 04: Robert Lewandowski of Muenchen celebrates after scoring his team's fourth goal during the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Borussia Dortmund at Allianz Arena on October 4, 2015 in Munich, Germany.  (Photo by Micha Will/Getty Images for MAN)
Micha Will/Getty Images for MAN
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Robert Lewandowski continues to rack up goals in a Bayern Munich jersey, and the Bundesliga side reaps the rewards for their star striker’s production.

The Polish international began the new Bundesliga campaign on Friday with a hat-trick, as Bayern capped off a dominating 6-0 win against Werder Bremen.

Xabi Alonso opened the scoring for the home side after just nine minutes, but all eyes were on Lewandowski on the night as he netted his first three goals of the 2016/17 season.

The 28-year-old added Bayern’s second goal in the 13th minute, before finishing off his hat-trick performance with tallies in the 46th and 77th minutes, respectively. While his final finish came from the penalty spot, Lewandowski already looks more than ready to help Bayern retain its Bundesliga crown.

Veteran defender Phillip Lahm and Franck Ribery also converted their chances past Bremen goalkeeper Felix Wiedwald on an afternoon that saw Bayern tally an overwhelming 27 shots, 14 of which landed on target.

Werder Bremen’s chances were limited, with Viktor Skrypnyk’s group recording a mere two shots on net throughout the night.

Meanwhile, U.S. attacker Julian Green was on the bench for Bayern, however, the young American wasn’t introduced into the match.