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Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ finally lives up to billing

Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ finally lives up to billing

TOULOUSE: Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ is finally living up to its billing at European 2016.

Expectations have long been heaped on a group of players led by Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, and the team has struggled to deliver.

Now, Belgium have qualified for a place in the quarter-finals after a convincing 4-0 victory against Hungary on Sunday at the Stadium de Toulouse.

Considered as one of the pre-tournament favourites, Belgium faced stinging criticism after a poor start to the tournament, losing 2-0 to Italy in their opening group match.

Since then, the team has rebounded and kept three clean sheets against Ireland, Sweden and Hungary.

Belgium go into the European Championship quarter-finals for the first time since losing the 1980 final.

“We have been criticised,” Belgium coach Marc Wilmots said. “But we don’t pay attention to that.

We have switched off. We don’t really care what people are saying about us. There’s only one answer to the critics. And that’s on the pitch.”

Having lost in the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup to Argentina, Belgium have now reached the same stage at Euro 2016 — and face a far more beatable opponent in Wales when they meet on Friday in Lille.

And there is no lack of ambition.

“We’re going to try to go all the way to the final,” De Bruyne said.

While De Bruyne had a good game against Hungary, it was Belgium captain Hazard’s inspired performance — including a fine solo goal, that made the difference, especially in the closing stages.

Hazard, who has finally burst into life at the tournament after a disappointing club season with Chelsea, set up one goal as well as Toby Alderweireld, Michy Batshuayi and Yannick Carrasco completed a comfortable victory.

“If he’s feeling good, he’s the best in the world,” Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said of Hazard. ” The only thing we might have done better was kill the match off earlier.”

Belgium dominated the opening stages and took the lead after 10 minutes when De Bruyne swung an inviting cross into the box where centre back Alderweireld rose at the far post to power a header past keeper Gabor Kiraly.

The Red Devils wasted a series of great chances to finish the game before Batshuayi, with his first touch as a substitute, tapped home Hazard’s low cross with 12 minutes remaining.

The Belgium skipper then cut inside Hungary’s box and rifled home a superb low strike for the third, with Carrasco adding a fourth in stoppage time.

“It’s great, we’re into the quarter-finals after a deserved win,” said Hazard. “We could have scored more goals, and although their ‘keeper pulled off some great stops we’re not complaining.

“We’re in the last eight, we’re going to Lille and I hope there will be a lot of Belgians there to support us. We’re still dreaming of going further in this competition. Now, we have to rest and prepare ourselves for Friday.”

Hungary coach Bernd Storck praised Belgium’s performance.

“We’ve never played against such a good team,” he said.

Despite the comprehensive defeat, Storck said Hungary leave Euro 2016 after surprising many by topping their group and putting in an honourable performance on Sunday.

“We can leave with our heads held high,” he said.

Published in Dawn, June 28th, 2016

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