Matured Belgium seek fast start against Slovakia

football15 June 2024 09:13| © Reuters
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Arthur Theate and Youri Tielemans © Getty Images

Rejuvenated Belgium hopes to banish the memories of a dismal 2022 World Cup campaign fraught with issues on and off the pitch and extend a 15-match unbeaten run in their European Championship Group E opener against Slovakia on Monday.

The country’s golden generation were tarnished by a first-round exit in Qatar but, with several fresh faces in the team and some new energy, Belgium have been unbeaten since coach Domenico Tedesco took over in February last year.

They may be flying a little under the radar in Germany and no longer among the favourites in many people's eyes, but if they keep cool heads in the changing room and their key players remain injury-free, then anything is possible.

Belgium have kept clean sheets in 10 of their 15 games under German-Italian coach Tedesco and have scored 33 goals themselves, with Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Jan Vertonghen the old heads among exciting young talents Jeremy Doku, Johan Bakayoko and Amadou Onana.

"The experience of Qatar has made us more mature and makes us look at a tournament differently," winger Yannick Carrasco told reporters.

"As a favourite, there is much more pressure. Being an outsider is beautiful but everyone knows we want to go as far as possible.

"There is a good atmosphere (in the squad) and a togetherness. We play board games and on the PlayStation. No-one stays in his room. Everyone is hungry and very motivated, young and old."

Belgium face a race against time to get key defenders Arthur Theate and Vertonghen fit for their opener, while veteran Axel Witsel, called out of retirement and shifted from the midfield to centre-back, is a doubt after pulling up in training on Friday.

Fullback Thomas Meunier is definitely out of Monday’s clash, leaving Tedesco potentially thin on defensive options.


Slovakia produced a pair of 4-0 wins over San Marino and Wales in warm-up fixtures but Belgium will be a step up in quality for Italian coach Francesco Calzona.

"Belgium is definitely the strongest team in our group. They are in a moment of change with their players because of their ages, but they have really strong young players. I believe we'll be seeing them at the top again, like in recent years," Calzona told

Experienced midfielder Juraj Kucka has overcome a shoulder problem that had kept him sidelined since April, while centre-back Denis Vavro has put a minor muscle problem behind him and is fit to play.

Belgium and Slovakia have met three times before, the last in 2013 when the former claimed a 2-1 home win. The two games before that both ended 1-1.

Their group also contains Romania and Ukraine, who will be in action in the first match on Monday.


Belgium remained tight-lipped over their injury woes in defence but let slip the fact that Axel Witsel had returned to individual training ahead of their European Championship Group E opener against Slovakia in Frankfurt on Monday.

Belgium held a closed training session on Saturday and journalists were asked not to pose questions about the players’ fitness at a media conference later in the day, though right back Timothy Castagne confirmed that Witsel, who had pulled out of training on Friday, had done an individual session.

Witsel was called out of retirement for the tournament as a centre back having been converted from midfield at Atletico Madrid this season.

There was no response to questions about the fitness of Jan Vertonghen and Arthur Theate and their absence, along with Witsel's, poses a potential crisis at the back for coach Domenico Tedesco.

"I'm not worried about the fact that there are some absentees. Everyone who will play is ready, there is enough quality," Castagne told reporters.

Wout Faes and 20-year-old Zeno Debast are the other specialist centre backs in the squad and Castagne, with 43 caps since 2018, is ready to take a leadership role in defence.

"I'm the most experienced player at the back. I always talk, but now I must do so even more. Of course, when I'm on the right, I can't talk to the left back. When there is a pause in the game I use that time to make adjustments."

Castagne said there was no instruction from Tedesco to take things easy in training but admitted that the last thing the team needed were more injury problems.

"We give it our all, we were not extra careful because there are a lot of injured players. But of course, we won't do stupid things. There's no point in making unnecessary tackles."

Even with a depleted backline, Castagne believes there is enough quality in the Belgium side for them to win a maiden Euro title, having been runners-up to West Germany in 1980.

"The group is a good mix of experience and youth. I'm not here to prove to you that we have a chance, it has to happen on the pitch.

"We don't care if the outside world see us as a favourite (or not). The most important thing is that we believe that we can achieve something beautiful."