Belgium's 'golden generation' finally lives up to billing
TOULOUSE: Belgium's "golden generation" is finally living up to its billing at the European Championship.
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 has qualified for a place in the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 after a convincing 4-0 victory against Hungary on Sunday at the Stadium de Toulouse.
Considered as one of the pre-tournament favorites, Belgium faced stinging criticism after a poor start to the tournament, losing 2-0 to Italy in its opening group match. Since then, the team has rebounded and kept three clean sheets against Ireland, Sweden and Hungary.
"We have been criticized," 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 quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup to Argentina, Belgium has now reached the same stage at Euro 2016 - and faces 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 Hazard's superb performance that made the difference, especially in the closing stages.
Defender Toby Alderweireld opened the scoring with a header in the 10th minute, but Belgium had to wait before securing the win, thanks to some moments of brilliance from Hazard.
The Chelsea playmaker provided the pass for substitute Michy Batshuayi to tap home in the 78th minute, and then scored a spectacular solo goal after a mazy run two minutes later.
Yannick Ferreira Carrasco added the fourth in stoppage time.
Asked if it was his best performance for Belgium, Hazard simply said "yes" before breaking into a smile.
"It was a great match," Hazard said. "Beyond my goal, it was a great collective performance. We created a lot of chances and finished enough of them."
The only complaint Wilmots had was that his players should have killed off the match earlier.
"We should have been 3-0 up after the first half," Wilmots said. "We kept the game 1-0 too long. We needed too many chances, and in big games we usually don't have so many chances.
"But I told them to be calm. I told them to keep going because we were moving the ball very well."
Hungary paid for an early defensive lapse that left its players chasing the game and exposed to Belgium's attacks on the break.
Lukaku and Alderweireld both broke away from the Hungary defense and were left unmarked when De Bruyne's free kick from the left swerved in. Lukaku was inches away from making contact but Alderweireld jumped at the same time and powered the ball home.
"I wasn't happy because we conceded the goal from a set piece," Hungary coach Bernd Storck said. "We weren't brave as we had been in previous matches. I thought there was a lack of confidence."
Despite the early blow, Hungary defended robustly and looked dangerous at times. Hungary's players had no such luck in the closing stages, as Hazard put the match beyond their reach.
He surged past a group of Hungary defenders on the left side before supplying a perfect low cross for Batshuayi to steer home, just two minutes after coming on.
Hazard followed up almost immediately with a remarkable goal, breaking down the left on another counterattack before cutting inside, skipping past three Hungary defenders and curling a shot into the bottom right corner.
Despite the comprehensive defeat, Storck said Hungary leaves Euro 2016 after surprising many by topping its group and putting in an honorable performance on Sunday.
"We can leave with our heads held high," he said.