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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Uefa Nations League: Belgium's World Cup bronze-medal winning performance losing lustre

Progress of Roberto Martinez's side hampered by an ageing Golden Generation, lack of bench strength and form of other smaller teams

Belgium's Eden Hazard, Dedryck Boyata and teammates look dejected after conceding their fifth goal scored by Switzerland's Haris Seferovic. Reuters
Belgium's Eden Hazard, Dedryck Boyata and teammates look dejected after conceding their fifth goal scored by Switzerland's Haris Seferovic. Reuters

A bronze medal from a World Cup loses its shine famously quickly.

In the last quarter century, pride at finishing in the medals has been swiftly followed, with eerily regularity, by a crash. Ask Sweden, Croatia, Turkey and the Netherlands, all of them third one year and then absent entirely from the next tournament.

Belgium, bold and entertaining in Russia five months ago in sealing their bronze, a highest-ever finish at a World Cup, should worry right now the jinx may have landed on them. Its first piece of destructive mischief was the shock scoreline from a weekend of dramatic turnarounds in the top tier of the Uefa Nations League as it filtered out its potential medallists for the inaugural Final Four, to be staged in Portugal next June.

Belgium had appeared all but there, 18 minutes into their last Section A2 fixture in Lucerne, Switzerland.

Two early goals from the younger Hazard - Thorgen striking one of them very much in the style of brother Eden - had set the Swiss the improbable task of scoring four times to adjust the points and goal-difference arithmetic enough to topple Belgium from the top of the group.

The Swiss promptly scored five, in less than a hour, reaching the target when Nico Elvedi netted on 62 minutes and making it safe once Haris Seferovic completed his hat-trick six minutes from full time. Belgium’s three-at-the-back had been thoroughly pulled out of shape, their left flank shredded.

Afterwards, manager Roberto Martinez faced the kind of concentration of awkward questions about his tactical decisions he has not come across since he left club football more than two years ago, having brought enterprising gung-ho to the Premier League, with Wigan Athletic and Everton, but often at a risk-reward ratio uncomfortable to some of those clubs’ supporters.

The urbane Martinez, a genuine candidate for the job of Real Madrid manager when there was a vacancy there three weeks ago, looked unusually ruffled by the Swiss blitz.

Belgium manager Roberto Martinez was struggling to find answers during their defeat to Switzerland. Reuters
Belgium manager Roberto Martinez was struggling to find answers during their defeat to Switzerland. Reuters

“Maybe we wanted it too much,” he suggested, identifying the 26th-minute penalty conceded by Nacer Chadli - the Monaco player had a wretched night at left wing-back - as the turning point. Switzerland’s first goal came from the spot-kick.

“We didn’t adapt to a changing situation,” the manager acknowledged. “We have to look at what happened, and draw lessons.”

The post-mortems will not focus not only on the luckless Chadli, shoehorned into a less-than-natural role. Vincent Kompany also had one of his less distinguished evenings of a feted international career. Dries Mertens, chosen to spearhead the attack in preference to the more physically imposing Michy Batshuayi, did not carry his Napoli form with him.

A one-off accident? Perhaps.

For reasons of fitness or travel complications, Martinez could not call on seven of the players from his World Cup squad - Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Mousa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini, Yannick Carrasco, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku. This meant four of his preferred starters were absent, and, with no Fellaini to come off the bench, they could not count on that most reliable of aerial rescue services.

But there were echoes of misadventures past, too, of the rollercoaster that very nearly hurled the Belgians out of the World Cup at the first knockout round, when Japan took a 2-0 lead against Martinez’s team.

His response to that, with telling substitutions, and his mastering of Brazil in the quarter-final showed off the best of the Spanish coach. Martinez has his dogmas, but he has certainly been the most capable and effective guide of Belgium’s so-called Golden Generation.

How long that generation hold together will become an issue.

Some of the leading lights - Kompany, Vertonghen, Mertens, Fellaini - are already into their 30s and by the time of Euro 2020, a tournament targeted as winnable by Martinez, men such as Axel Witsel, Toby Alderweireld will be.

The evident comfort of Thorgen Hazard, 25, in a Belgian jersey is encouraging for the long-term. But Martinez knows that the talent spread through the current cadre - from which he can pick starting XIs entirely drawn from strong Uefa Champions League clubs - is not a guarantee in a country of just 11 million citizens.

He will also see that, in the Nations League, other medium-sized countries have stolen a march.

Portugal, the reigning European champions, are in the Final Four. They will host the mini-tournament’s two semi-finals and the final - along with the Netherlands and Switzerland.

And if the presence of only one of this year’s World Cup semi-finalists, all of whom were from Europe, suggests the heavyweights feel indifferent about the new competition, it is misleading.

The groups were played out with vigour and enthusiasm, and three of them featured edge-of-the-seat climaxes.

The Swiss dramatically rolled back a doomed scenario in Lucerne. France ousted from top spot in their group by the Netherlands’ very late comeback from 2-0 down to draw in Germany on Sunday.

England, the other finalists, reversed a 1-0 deficit in the last 12 minutes against Croatia to leap above Spain.