Team news ahead of Belgium vs France in the Nations League semi-final on Thursday; kick-off 7.45pm.
Belgium captain Eden Hazard has a stage at the Nations League finals this week to make up for the setbacks of recent years as he struggled for form following a series of niggling injuries.
Belgium begin with a semi-final in Turin on Thursday against neighbours France. If Hazard can lead Belgium to success in the mini-tournament, also involving hosts Italy and Spain, it will do much to restore his reputation.
The 30-year-old attacker is a long-time mainstay of his national team and one of their “golden generation” but in the last two seasons his career has been stagnant despite a dream move to Real Madrid.
His playing time was restricted by a litany of complaints, mostly after surgery on his ankle but also including various muscle strains after battling with the demands of his £88.5m transfer from Chelsea.
He almost missed out on the European Championship in mid-year but was given time to regain some fitness so that Belgium could use him, first as an impact substitute and then in the starting line-up.
They were his first appearances in about 18 months for the national team but he featured in all three of September’s World Cup qualifiers, with Belgium coach Roberto Martinez declaring that the tricky wide player was looking “back to his best”.
Hazard comes into the tournament after being involved in all but one of Real Madrid’s La Liga and Champions League matches, and with the chance to re-establish the credentials lost over a frustrating two-year period.
He has had to deal with enormous pressure and media scrutiny in Spain and, though he is a jovial character, the frustration of not being able to make an impact with Real has been hard to deal with, according to some of his colleagues.
“Eden has been a little down,” club and national team-mate Thibaut Courtois has said previously. “But Real Madrid waits for no one, not even Hazard.”
Martinez feels that is now all in the past. “Eden is ready to make a real impact again,” he said.
The Nations League finals this week are the perfect opportunity to prove Martinez right.
Club Brugge’s one-cap starlet Charles De Ketelaere, 20, is the most inexperienced member of Martinez’s Belgium squad but Dries Mertens, Christian Benteke and Divock Origi have all been left out.
Belgium are likely to stick with their familiar 3-4-3 system. Kevin De Bruyne is back in the fold and is likely to be played alongside Hazard and Romelu Lukaku across the front.
Youri Tielemans and Axel Witsel are set to be paired in midfield while Dedryck Boyata could be preferred to Jason Denayer in defence.
N’Golo Kante is unavailable for France after returning a positive coronavirus test last month, so Didier Deschamps must decide who to play alongside Paul Pogba in midfield.
Should France stick to a 4-3-3 formation, Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot could both be given the nod with Pogba. Benjamin Pavard and Jules Kounde are vying to start at right-back.
Lucas and Theo Hernandez both feature in France’s squad, possibly marking the first time brothers will play together in the national team since Herve and Patrick Revelli against Romania in March 1974.
Kylian Mbappe should hold his place up top with Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann.
‘We don’t fear Belgium’
The second last-four tie at Juventus’ Allianz Stadium on Thursday is a rematch of the 2018 World Cup semi-final in Russia.
On that occasion, France came out on top and went on to win the tournament, but Belgium have since risen to top spot in the world rankings.
“There is this rivalry and it’s maybe a bit heightened after the semi-final in Russia,” said France manager Deschamps, whose side suffered a frustrating Euro 2020 exit to Switzerland at the last-16 stage.
“We don’t fear them but they have a solid shape and plenty of creative ability. Their attacking play is very effective and they are very efficient.”
And Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku said: “I think now in the Nations League we must do really well so that we can peak at the next World Cup.”
What happened in the Nations League group phase?
Belgium topped Group A2, five points ahead of both Denmark and England, after winning every game in the section other than a 2-1 loss to Gareth Southgate’s side at Wembley in October 2020.
Meanwhile, France progressed to the semi-finals after also going unbeaten in Group A3, winning five and drawing one of their clashes with Portugal, Croatia and Sweden last autumn.
In fact, the 2016 European champions were the only team not to lose to Les Bleus after holding them to a goalless draw in Paris in October 2020, but Deschamps’ side still finished three points clear of them.
How to follow
Belgium vs France is live on Sky Sports Football from 7.30pm, kick-off 7.45pm. Sky Sports customers can watch in-game clips in the live match blog on the Sky Sports website and app. Highlights will also be published on the Sky Sports digital platforms shortly after the final whistle.