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World Cup: Belgium blitzes Tunisia as it eyes path to final

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Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, right, flicks the ball past Tunisia goalkeeper Farouk Ben Mustapha for his fourth goal of the World Cup in a Group G match in Moscow on Saturday.
(Hassan Ammar / Associated Press)

The problem with gold is it’s just a metal until someone takes the time and effort to polish it and make it glisten.

And Belgian soccer’s so-called Golden Generation, a 24-karat collection of world-class players at every position, came to Russia having lost much of its shine over the last four years.

Disappointing losses in the quarterfinals of the 2016 European Championship and the 2014 World Cup had not only left the underachieving Belgians with nothing to show for all that talent, but it led captain Eden Hazard to compare his team to England.

It wasn’t meant as a compliment.

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“Ten years or 15 years ago, you had this ‘Golden Generation’ in England but [it] won nothing,” Hazard, who plays for Chelsea in the English Premier League, told reporters before the World Cup. “Now I think the fans, journalists, all of Belgium, the country just wants to win something.”

The team is off to a good start toward doing just that in Russia, with Saturday’s 5-2 rout of Tunisia virtually guaranteeing it a spot in the knockout round and stamping it as perhaps the most dominant team in the tournament thus far; it has won its first two games by three-goal margins and its eight goals overall match Russia for most in the tournament.

Playing before a sellout crowd of more than 44,000 on a hot, humid day at Spartek Stadium, Romelu Lukaku had his second two-goal game and Eden Hazard had two goals of his own, helping Belgium extend its unbeaten streak to 21 games, dating to September 2016.

The credit for that goes to coach Roberto Martinez, who was given the job of polishing the Golden Generation 22 months ago. A Spaniard who won an FA Cup but little else in coaching stops at Swansea City, Wigan and Everton, Martinez has brought a steady, low-key approach to a Belgium team that was in danger of being crushed under the weight of expectation.

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“We do want to be boring,” said Martinez, whose mantra in Russia has been “simplicity and basics,” one he repeats, like all team business, in English.

“We’re a football team,” he said. “We’re not here to bring stories or try to fill pages for the wrong reasons.”

That’s one reason Martinez did not bring physical midfielder Radja Nainggolan to Russia. A fan favorite under previous coach Marc Wilmots, Nainggolan has been a discipline problem for Martinez, who left him home to avoid the chance of any unwanted drama.

The players who did come to Russia have bought into the team-first approach.

“We’ll try to keep this going and improve ourselves as well because it wasn’t perfect,” defender Toby Alderweireld said after Saturday’s win.

Known in England as a student of the game, a deep thinker who can be thoughtful, charming and engaging, Martinez has made that approach work in his first job in the international level, one reason the Belgian federation rewarded him with a two-year contract extension before the team even left for Russia.

But none of what happened before means anything unless Belgium, ranked third in the world, makes a long run in the World Cup. And with pretournament favorites Spain, Germany, Brazil and France all off to unimpressive starts in Russia, a path for Belgium is beginning to open up.

A spot in the final, never mind a win there, would be historic for Belgium, whose best finish in a major tournament was second place in the 1980 European Championships, then just an eight-team tournament. Five starters came back six years later and led Belgium to the semifinals of the 1986 World Cup, still its best finish in that tournament.

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The leader of that team was Jan Ceulemans, a hulking midfielder who retired as the most-capped player in team history and was selected by Pele as one of the world’s 125 best players in 2004.

Ceulemans, who never played club soccer outside Belgium, might not start on this year’s team. Martinez’s international lineup is built around versatile Manchester City playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku, whose four goals tied him with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo for the tournament scoring lead after two games.

But the team is getting old. Nine of Martinez’s 11 starters Saturday will be at least 30 by the next World Cup, and while gold doesn’t tarnish with age, golden generations do. That makes the next three weeks perhaps the best chance for Belgium to finally live up to its promise.

Martinez is taking nothing for granted.

“We’re still growing,” he said. “We need to do better. We’re still in a process. Talent on its own is not enough.

“There are many things that we need to work on. And that work will start tomorrow morning.”

Full coverage of the 2018 World Cup »

kevin.baxter@latimes.com | Twitter: @kbaxter11

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UPDATES:

9:40 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from coach Roberto Martinez and others and analysis.

This article was originally published at 7:35 a.m.


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