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Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ have been ranked the world’s best for more than 1,000 days but they have no silverware to show for it – will Euro 2020 finally be their year?
They knocked out defending champions Portugal in the last 16 and equalled their longest winning streak at major tournaments, winning five in a row for the second time under boss Roberto Martinez.
With a squad packed full of talent they have never been better equipped to win a trophy as they set up a quarter-final tie with Italy.
But it took a wonder goal from Thorgan Hazard to scrape past Portugal, while star men Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard picked up injuries.
“As a coach I coudn’t be prouder,” said Martinez. “We played against the best team in Europe in ‘knowing how to win’. It was the biggest test there is.”
But defender Thomas Vermaelen said Belgium were “lucky to win” so can they finally go all the way?
Is it now or never for Belgium?
Belgium have the talent but these players will not be around for much longer.
The starting XI against Portugal had an average age of 30 years and 148 days – their oldest in a game at the European Championship, and the oldest named by any of the remaining teams at Euro 2020.
They were knocked out of Euro 2016 by Wales in the quarter-finals and they lost to eventual champions France in the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup.
Belgian football journalist Kristof Terreur told BBC Radio 5 Live: “We have been number one for 1,000 days but we haven’t won anything. We have to deliver now. It is now or never for this generation.
“The real feeling I had in Russia [at the 2018 World Cup] that we were going to do it, I don’t feel that now. This is tough.
“But we have winners in every position now and they have people around them who are winners. [Belgium coach] Thierry Henry, for example, was a winner and he has helped Romelu Lukaku become a winner.”
Former England winger Chris Waddle added: “Looking at this Belgium team on paper, if they don’t win this tournament there is something wrong.
“They have quality everywhere. I would not want to play Belgium whoever I was. Other teams looking at this draw will not want Belgium.
“Belgium will never have a better chance of winning a tournament than this.”
Through to the last eight – but at what price?
De Bruyne’s fitness will be a huge concern before the showdown with Italy in Munich after he limped off with an ankle injury moments after half-time.
Belgium’s injury concerns were worsened when Real Madrid’s Hazard also picked up a knock late on.
On the injuries, Martinez said: “It was a really bad tackle [on De Bruyne] and we will see. We have no diagnosis. Hazard is a muscle injury and we will see in 48 hours.”
Waddle added: “If they have lost De Bruyne and Hazard that is a big blow.
“De Bruyne is a top, top player. Hopefully it is a knock. His ankle looked to go right over though and he didn’t look happy. Let’s hope he will be back.”
Vermaelen said the win “cost us a lot of energy”, while Terreur thinks the Red Devils’ travelling time could be a problem.
“They dug deep but this team will need some recovery sessions,” he said. “Italy have one day more to recover but that won’t make a huge difference.
“Belgium have been travelling all the time. That tires you out a bit too.”
Was that Ronaldo’s last tournament?
Meanwhile, Belgium’s victory saw the tournament’s top scorer bow out with Portugal – will it be the last time we see Cristiano Ronaldo at a major tournament?
The Juventus striker led his country to the Euro 2016 title but he would be 37 if he were to appear in a seventh major tournament at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar?
“I can’t think about a moment without Cristiano Ronaldo,” said Terreur.
Former Portugal defender Carlos Carvalhal added: “If he didn’t have these goals and targets, he would not play any more. I believe at this level he will play two more seasons.
“He will play the World Cup I believe.”