Can Belgium's Golden Generation really live up to the hype?

Italy's nous is no myth. They conceded just seven goals in their 10 Euro 2016 qualifiers

Belgium will face Italy in a Euro 2016 Group E soccer match in Lyon on Monday. Photograph: Pavel Golovkin/Getty Images

Belgium will face Italy in a Euro 2016 Group E soccer match in Lyon on Monday. Photograph: Pavel Golovkin/Getty Images

 

One of the most surprising statistics of last season’s Premier League involved Eden Hazard. Starting it as the reigning Footballer of the Year, Hazard went from August to April without scoring a single league goal for Chelsea.

Along the way, Hazard’s drought helped cost Jose Mourinho his job at Stamford Bridge. Tonight in Lyon, Hazard will appear for Belgium against Italy, whose manager, Antonio Conte, will become Mourinho’s permanent replacement after these finals.

Tonight therefore entails a Chelsea sub-plot. Conte could discover just how slick Hazard can be; Hazard can discover how Conte thwarts attacks.

These are not the only Chelsea elements. When Conte assesses Belgium’s possible forward line in Lyon, he will see that Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku are likely to be alongside Hazard. Both players, both talents, were at Stamford Bridge but were allowed to leave. Both might find Conte’s presence an added inspiration.

Hazard has declared his intention to have a “brilliant” European Championships now that two separate hip injuries which stalled his league season have departed, and Italy and Conte offer a pedigree opportunity to begin. Then he can think of Chelsea.

Attacking potential

“He has a job to finish with Italy but we want to work together,” Hazard said of Conte.

However Belgium’s attacking potential was part of the expectation that accompanied the squad to the last World Cup, where they made the quarter-finals without being scintillating and were then beaten by Argentina.

Belgium’s so-called Golden Generation – a bit like England’s before them - may well have suffered from Premier League hype and the possibility is that Yannick Carrasco, so impressive as an Athletico Madrid substitute in the Champions League final, will be more dangerous than the other three.

It is such options that create anticipation around Belgium. Conte will note that in goal, they also have another Chelsea player, Thibaut Courtois.

Troubling for Conte is that Italy lack that kind of attacking dimension. Southampton’s Graziano Pelle, 31 next month, is one of their key strikers and Conte has said: “You can’t hide the fact that we no longer boast great riches of attacking players. We are in a difficult phase.”

Downbeat assessment

That said, Italy’s nous is no myth. They conceded just seven goals in their 10 qualifiers as they topped Group H ahead of Croatia, and while there is a now-familiar downbeat general assessment of the Italians, that qualification record, and their tournament history, means that Belgium can take nothing for granted.

When the two countries met in a friendly in Brussels last November, Belgium won 3-1 having fallen behind early on. De Bruyne scored that night, as did Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen.

Vertonghen and his Tottenham colleague Toby Alderweireld give the Belgians a recognisable Premier League profile and Conte is about to see if Hazard – or any of the other Belgians – can justify these claims.

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