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Bakayoko will be key to Belgium’s Euro campaign

For the first time in a decade, Belgium are going into a major international tournament without the pressure of being among the favourites.

Football is cyclical, and the Red Devils have reached the end of theirs. It is a painstaking process for any country to rebuild after their ‘Golden Generation’ breaks up, you just need to look at Spain’s group stage exit at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil after winning three titles in succession, or Italy consistently failing on the big stage after their 2006 triumph, albeit with their win at the last Euros slapped in the middle of their inconsistent run over the last few years.

The Qatar World Cup was Belgium’s seminal moment; the time where everyone reluctantly accepted it was time for a shift in focus. They exited at the group stage and Roberto Martinez departed from his coaching duties to take over at Portugal. Not even two years on and the core of that team, which had been together for around eight years, is no longer there. There is no Toby Alderweireld, Eden Hazard has since retired from football all together, and Thibaut Courtois, who has battled injuries this season, has been left out despite returning for Real Madrid. Even those who remain from that team, Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel, Jan Vertonghen and even Romelu Lukaku, are over 30 and probably approaching their last dance.

Domenico Tedasco, one of the youngest coach at Euro 2024 at just 38 years of age, is attempting to navigate the tricky waters between eras. There is a lack of top players in their prime in the Belgian side, but they do have a lot of emerging talent, particularly in attack. Jeremy Doku has proven himself in his first year at Manchester City, and he will be joined in carrying the burden of replacing Hazard by one if the players expected to be a breakout star from the tournament.

Johan Bakayoko is certainly a player to watch after he starred for PSV Eindhoven last season, helping them win the Eredivisie title with 21 goal involvements in 33 games. The 20-year-old has drawn a lot of comparisons to Doku for his close control, pace and dribbling, but he plays on the other wing and is more physically imposing. He will likely use this tournament as a springboard; expect his value to skyrocket come mid to late July.

In an interview with The Athletic, Bakayoko praised his PSV boss Peter Boaz, and drew comparisons with Tedasco, who gave him his international debut in March last year.
“Tedesco’s the same as my club trainer — they operate in the same way, they treat people like humans, they talk to players. Whether it’s good or bad, they try to help you and give you the freedom to play. They’re quite similar.

“I have less time with Tedesco so I don’t know him as well as Peter. Peter is tactical. That comes from 25 years of experience. He really knows a lot about football. He always tries something different if something isn’t working.”

Bakayoko knows how good he can be, and has set his sights on proving it.

“In the next five years, I want to be close to winning the Ballon d’Or,” he said. “I’ll do my best and see where it can end, but I don’t want to give myself limits. I don’t want to say, ‘I remember when I won the Ballon d’Or’, or something like this. I want to keep going.”

It is a tough time for Belgium, their quality doesn’t run as deep anymore. But neither does the expectation; this a team that may surprise a few people, especially with their quality in attacking wide areas. Everyone should watch out, Johan Bakayoko is about to explode into the scene.


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