In Focus: The Belgian youngsters ready to hurt Ireland
The chance to win a major tournament may have passed Belgium’s golden generation by — but the Red Devils have another crop of potential superstars waiting in the wings.
Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Co finished third at the 2018 World Cup, were knocked out in the Euro 2020 quarter-finals and ended up fourth in the 2021 UEFA Nations League.
But they have yet to win an international tournament and time is running out.
Ahead of this evening’s friendly against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin, we focus on a few of the young pretenders giving Belgium hope of future glory.
Giving youth a chance
Martinez has taken an interesting approach to his squad selection for this month’s friendlies against Ireland and Burkina Faso, picking only players with 50 caps or fewer.
That means Thibaut Courtois, De Bruyne, Lukaku and Hazard — among others — have been rested.
There are also three uncapped players in the squad with defenders Wout Faes and Siebe Van der Heyden of Reims and Union Saint-Gilloise in line for a first senior appearance alongside Stuttgart midfielder Orel Mangala.
With 47 caps, Leicester maestro Youri Tielemans, 24, is the most experienced player called upon by Martinez. As such, some stars of the future should get their chance to impress.
Here are the three standout stars to keep an eye on.
Charles De Ketelaere
Charles De Ketelaere’s displays for Belgian title challengers Club Brugge have earned him comparisons with De Bruyne — who ironically set up the 21-year-old’s first international goal.
Nicknamed King Charles, De Ketelaere is something of an enigma and not easily categorised as a forward or midfielder, instead existing somewhere between the two. In fact, he has even been used at left-back.
One thing for sure is that he is a hugely technically gifted young player and that likening to De Bruyne has foundation.
Only four players — three of whom are strikers — have more goal contributions in the Belgian top flight this season than De Ketelaere’s 19 (13 goals and six assists).
Tall, good with his back to goal and an intelligent creator of space, De Ketelaere is Belgium’s next great hope.
He may be the youngest member of the latest squad at 19, but Jeremy Doku has already represented his country 10 times.
Doku made two appearances at Euro 2020, including the 2-1 quarter-final loss to Italy in which he set up Lukaku for Belgium’s goal.
Liverpool have been linked with a move for the rapid Rennes winger, who certainly does not lack ambition.
Speaking in December, he said: "I want to do everything to become one of the best players in the world, at one of the biggest clubs in the world, in the English Premier League if possible.
"And I am working hard for that."
Doku has spent most of the current campaign injured but he will no doubt be hoping he is fit to torment Ireland’s senior team, just as he did their Under-17s with an electrifying performance at the 2019 European Championships.
A versatile right-sided operator capable of playing as a winger or full-back, Alexis Saelemaekers has featured in every league game for Serie A leaders AC Milan this term.
With neither Thomas Meunier nor Timothy Castagne in the squad for these two friendlies, he could well find himself lining up for Belgium at right wing-back — a role he played at Anderlecht and one which suits his direct, high-energy style.
And as a member of one of the most intense pressing sides in Italy, there should be no doubting Saelemaekers’ work rate.
Saelemaekers is in the 91st percentile for pressures versus other wingers and attacking midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues, and the 97th percentile for interceptions.
The best of the rest
This squad also contains a fair few lesser-known quantities plying their trade in Belgium and around Europe’s top five leagues.
Surprise Jupiler Pro League leaders Union Saint-Gilloise have had two players called up by the national team — the aforementioned Van der Heyden and forward Dante Vanzeir, 23, who has 13 goals and nine assists this season.
Arsenal midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonoga will be keen to add to his solitary cap so far, as will centre-back Arthur Theate, whose impressive showings on loan at Bologna have reportedly caught the eye of AC Milan.
While the wait for a trophy goes on, at least the future looks bright for Belgium.