Cats ace Simon Mignolet at heart of Belgian revival

A GOLDEN Generation from Belgium sounds like a strong and expensive bottled beer served up in trendy bars.

Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet

A GOLDEN Generation from Belgium sounds like a strong and expensive bottled beer served up in trendy bars.

But this is the label currently being attached to the country’s young and exciting football team who face England at Wembley this Saturday, the final game before Roy Hodgson’s squad departs for the European Championships.

And it is a description, according to Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, who should start for his country, that he and his team-mates are more than comfortable living with.

England supporters are, of course, perfectly positioned to warn their Belgian counterparts about placing too much faith in any so-called golden generation.

However, there is something happening right now to Belgian football, which has been dormant for a decade, and England’s best will be seriously tested this weekend by a group of players many say have the potential of becoming one of Europe’s best international sides.

Mignolet was just a young fan at 13 when he suffered heartbreak as eventual winners Brazil knocked his country out of the 2002 World Cup.

That was a travesty for the Belgians because talisman Marc Wilmots, currently their caretaker manager, scored what was a perfectly legal first-half goal which would have made it 1-0 in their last-16 match, only for it to be disallowed for reasons that even today are unclear.

Brazil went on to win 2-0.

That was the last time Belgium qualified for a major championship and are absent once again this summer. Stadium of Light favourite Mignolet believes things are about to change.

Mignolet said: “We have a really decent team, a really decent squad. The problem for us has been that we’ve not converted all that talent into results.

“We really should have qualified for the Euros with all the quality we have in the squad (they finished third behind Turkey and Germany). But we didn’t manage to do that. However, hopefully we can kick on and make sure we qualify for the next World Cup.

“The England game is an important one for us to help prepare for that campaign.

“We have not managed to qualify for the big tournaments for ten years, which is really disappointing because we should really have done that with the players we have had to call on.

“But things have changed and for the better. We have a lot of good, young players right now and that’s what football is about.

“These days you need start playing first-team football at a younger age, and all our guys play big competitions with the clubs.”

So who are these young players that will give England’s European Championship-bound stars a run for their money on Saturday? Let’s start with the superstar. Lille’s Eden Hazard is going to cost Chelsea – who he favours over the two Manchester clubs – £35m this summer; it will be money well spent. He is an incredible talent, two-footed, scores goals, makes goals and there is nobody better in the world at his age of 21.

Vincent Kompany was the best defender in the Premier League last season and while Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen can blow hot and cold, when on form he is a superb centre-half.

Kompany is not even the captain. That honours lies with Jan Vertonghen of Ajax, another defender or deep lying midfielder, who is on the verge of moving to Tottenham for £13m.

Axel Witsel at Benfica and Steven Defour with Porto were two of the best midfielders in the Portuguese league last season; a fully-fit Marouane Fellaini was superb for Everton, as was the silky Moussa Dembele for Fulham.

And while Romelu Lukaku failed to make the breakthrough at Chelsea following last summer’s £18m move from Anderlecht, at 19 he has plenty of time on his hands.

That’s a lot of money being paid for players from such a small country and Kompany, at 27 ,is the oldest on the list. Fellaini is next at 24.

Kompany said: “At City I am one of the youngest. With Belgium I am one of the oldest, which says it all. The entire squad is good and will only get better.”

In terms of Saturday’s game, this is both good and bad news for Hodgson.

This Belgian side will give England a proper test, vital for the new manager as he mulls over his XI to face France on June 11, but are more than capable of inflicting a morale-damaging defeat.

Mignolet said: “England is the big game for us and we’re taking it really seriously. It’s the one we have been looking forward to before the break. It’s a massive game for England as well.

“It will be their last before the Euros, and under a new manager, so all of the players will be trying to show they deserve to be in the team. They will be well up for it and so will we.

“For us, it will be about preparation for the qualifiers in September. We want to make sure we qualify for the World Cup in 2014. We are gearing up for that now. It will be a good match for us to help our preparation.”

And perhaps the real proof of the strength of Belgium football right now lies with their goalkeepers.

Mignolet himself was outstanding for Sunderland last season and for the moment is first-choice shot-stopper with Thibaut Courtois, a Chelsea player who has spent a year on loan at Atletico Madrid, breathing down his neck.

Courtois was outstanding in his the Spanish side’s 3-0 Europa League final win over Athletic Bilbao this month. He is just 20.

To put that into context of Saturday, England’s back-up keepers, Robert Green and Jack Butland, were both playing their football in the Championship last season.

 

Premier League News

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer