Belgium’s rise to the upper echelons of the FIFA world rankings in recent years has caught almost everyone by surprise – apart from those involved behind the scenes.
Like England’s classes of 2004 and 2006, the Belgians can now boast a genuine ‘Golden Generation’ of world class talent from goalkeeper through to their attacking options.
It remains to be seen whether, unlike the English, they’ll actually fulfil their potential and garner success at a major tournament, with the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku all some of the best in their respective positions.
But, ahead of Anderlecht’s Europa League clash with Manchester United, who are the next generation of players hoping to follow in their footsteps?
We spoke to Mike Notermans, a reporter at Belgian news outlet GrenzEcho, and another journalist at HLN to get the low down on who they think can dominate the Belgian game for years.
“For me it’s clear that Tielemans is THE youngster. For the moment, I can’t see a Belgian youngster who is coming through like he is.”
Notermans wasn’t shy to profess who he feels is the flag bearer of the next generation, with Tielemans catching the eye of some of the biggest clubs in the world in recent years.
His goalscoring exploits – he has 17 goals – from midfield this season have drawn comparisons with Paul Scholes and he seems almost certain to leave Belgium for loftier destinations this summer.
The general consensus in his home country is the 19-year-old should move to France, with Monaco heavily linked, or England, perhaps with Everton, before a move to one of Europe’s true heavyweights.
There’s no denying he is the danger man when United welcome Anderlecht at Old Trafford.
Last Thursday’s bullet header that drew Anderlecht level against United in the first leg wasn’t a bad way to announce himself on the scene.
Dendoncker is a bruising battler in the heart of the pitch from the Mousa Dembele school of midfielding, and is another who won’t be long for the Belgian First Division.
The likes of Borussia Dortmund, Valencia, Sevilla and Southampton are all monitoring his services and while he’s less spectacular than Tielemans, he’s equally as important to the Belgian outfit.
While a little less well known, Foket probably poses the best chances of actually breaking into the Belgium first team on a regular basis by virtue of their bizarre shortage of full backs.
Part of the Gent side that stunned Tottenham in the Europa League last 32 earlier this season, he is comfortable in any position down the right hand side.
With Belgium forced to field players like Toby Alderweireld at right back in recent years, there’s a genuine opening for Foket to compete for the right back position.
The 22-year-old made his international debut against the Netherlands back in November and while Thomas Meunier has been excellent for PSG this season, he could make a very handy understudy for Roberto Martinez.
As close to a hybrid of Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke as you can find, Dimata is being labelled ‘the revelation of the season’ in Belgium.
At just 19 he’s only been outscored by seven players so far in the Belgian top flight this season after a brilliant campaign for Oostende.
His 11 goals in the league have propelled Oostende into fifth in the league and above traditional big boys Genk and Standard Liege.
Dimata is expected to join the mass exodus of promising Belgian youngsters moving away from their country of birth by joining Wolfsburg in the summer for a fee in the region of €5m.
On the surface, that looks like a steal.
WHAT ABOUT THE REST?
From what we learned from our Belgian experts, it seems there is a general consensus that a lot of the next generation are bogged down in England without getting regular game time.
The likes of Adnan Januzaj, Jason Denayer, Michy Batshuayi and Charly Musonda are all warming benches rather than starting games frequently, if at all.
That’s why so many experts hope that Tielemans doesn’t make the mistake of wasting his career away at a club too big at such a young age.
WHEN DO THEY EXPECT THE GOLDEN GENERATION TO COME GOOD?
England’s best squad since 1966 flattered to deceive, with their pinnacle meant to come at either Euro 2004 or the World Cup in 2006 that ended so inauspiciously at the hands of Portugal on both occasions.
As for Belgium’s own version, Notermans feels they can build on their quarter-final finish at Euro 2016.
“For me it’s the World Cup in 2018 in Russia. It’s possible that Euro 2016 came too early for Hazard and co,” he said.
“Now they have already played a few seasons in the biggest leagues of the world, they just have more experience and they know how to win a tournament or how to react after a defeat, a goal, a setback.”
He added: “Maybe there was also a big problem between Marc Wilmots [ex Belgium manager] and the team.
“He did not know how to handle players like Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.
“That changed with Roberto Martinez. For the moment there is still a lot of work for him. But I am confident.”