Belgium boss Roberto Martinez believes that there is no other midfielder like Kevin De Bruyne when he gets going.
The Manchester City star scored once and provided three assists in Belgium’s 4-0 win over Scotland in a 2020 Euro qualifier game. The 28-year-old produced an elegant display like he has done so far with his club this season in which he has already provided five assists.
Martinez has little doubts that De Bruyne is one of the best in his position on his day.
“He’s been very, very good for a long time now,” Martinez told Sky Sports post-match.
“I think he’s in the best moment of his career. This campaign has started with a freshness and real driven feeling of playing at his best and when he does that he’s as good as it gets. There’s no other midfield player that can create space, a playmaker that can execute the passes that he does. It’s a joy to see him fitting into the group.
“It’s fair to say today was a big win for us. It’s a big, big step. We need to keep getting tighter as a group and keep getting better.”
Gareth Southgate would like the European Championship finals to revert to 16 teams as the current qualification process lacks “jeopardy”.
For all the Three Lions’ ups and downs at major tournaments, the national team are on a 42-match unbeaten qualification run for either the World Cup or Euros.
England’s last loss came against Ukraine in October 2009 and few expect Kosovo to prevent that run being extended in Tuesday’s Euro 2020 qualifier at St Mary’s.
A sell-out crowd will be in attendance for a rare match with a sense of danger and Southgate admits the qualification system is far from ideal.
“It’s always dangerous to comment on that tonight when we have a game tomorrow that is a potential to drop points if we’re not right,” the England boss said.
“But, I think if I look across Europe in general, you’d have to say there isn’t enough jeopardy in the qualification process to make all of the groups as exciting as they could be.
“We saw the difference that the Nations League presented in terms of excitement for fans and the thrill of that.
“So, I’m taking tomorrow’s game out of the equation, because I think it will be an enjoyable game, the way they play, the way they press, the passion and enthusiasm they’ve got. It’ll make it a really good spectacle.
“But there are a lot of games, when I look across Europe, you’re going through the fixture list and I’m looking at the games each night and there’s maybe a couple each night that you really might want to tune in to.
“I just think we have to be careful that we don’t devalue… it’s hard because there are so many new countries now and so many countries to involve in the process, but we’ve got to do the right thing for the supporters as well.”
Southgate admits he has not got a solution as to how to inject competitiveness and jeopardy into qualification, but the England manager is “sure there’s a way of doing something” before the next European campaign.
One thing that the 57-cap former defender does believe has hampered the buzz around qualifiers is the increased number of teams progressing to finals.
And things only look to be getting worse on that front, with the 24-team European Championships to be followed by 48 teams playing at the 2026 World Cup – a steep rise from the 32 countries that have taken part since 1998.
“(There were) fewer teams qualifying for the finals, so when I was playing you had to win your group, and I think European Championships were only 16 teams so that makes a difference in itself,” he said.
“The first World Cup qualifying I was involved in, Italy were in our group and you had to win the group. Then there was a play-off for some of the better-placed teams.
“So, I think the big thing is the number of teams that get to the finals and I understand wanting to open that up to more, but I just think, if I’m looking at it from a football development point of view or an appeal of everybody else, then I would question whether it’s the right thing.”
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Left-back Marcel Halstenberg’s sublime second-half strike helped earn Germany a tricky 2-0 win at previously undefeated Northern Ireland and soothed wounds caused by last week’s home humiliation to the Netherlands.
Virulent criticism for head coach Joachim Low increased in volume after Thursday’s painful 4-2 competitive loss to their old rivals. A response was required at Windsor Park against Group C’s surprise table toppers in Euro 2020 qualifying – and it was duly delivered.
A pair of solid hand-ball calls were waved away in the first half, though this was only a stay of execution for possession-starved hosts. Just three minutes after the interval, a sweeping move saw right-back Lukas Klostermann’s cross bobble across for RB Leipzig club-mate Halstenberg to sublimely half-volley home.
Substitute Kai Havertz then emerged from the bench and his slide-rule pass put Bayern Munich winger Serge Gnabry clear to trickle in – from a tight angle – a ninth international goal in 10 appearances.
This was far from a perfect display, however, with Hearts striker Conor Washington twice being denied by alert Bayern No1 Manuel Neuer in the opening period and Leeds United winger Stuart Dallas dragging wide past the hour mark.
Here, we put Germany under the microscope:
Attempts on target: 7
Attempts ceded/on target: 5/1
Possession: 75 per cent
Pass accuracy: 88 per cent
Disgruntlement borne out of the humiliation at World Cup 2018 raised in pitch after the Dutch’s raid in Hamburg.
This tension was increased by an ill-suited 5-3-2 formation, continued ignorance of emerging Bayer Leverkusen playmaker Havertz and anger sparked by counter-attacking tactics.
Low gained early credit in Belfast with a return to a 4-2-3-1, though Havertz watched on from the sidelines.
Germany would dominate possession in the first half, without regularly threatening. Indeed, Neuer’s typically proactive keeping to snub out Washington’s one-on-one was the best early chance.
The visitors picked up the pace after half-time and gained reward through Halstenberg’s first goal from four caps.
The Green and White Army remained undaunted, but couldn’t force a leveller as their 100-per-cent record definitively evaporated with Gnabry’s sharp finish with the match’s final touch.
No pointless possession: The sight of cowardly Germany sitting deep against the Netherlands proved impossible to stomach.
At Windsor Park, against admittedly inferior opposition, an ability to both control possession and then devastatingly pick up the pace gave a snap shot of Low’s vision for the future.
That the adventurous Klostermann forced a save from Burnley back-up Bailey Peacock-Farrell in the move before the goal exemplified Low’s vision.
Once Manchester City flyer Leroy Sane is fit again and Havertz – who should have converted a header with his first touch – is adjudged ready to usurp Borussia Dortmund’s Julien Brandt, threat levels should increase again.
Defensive jitters: Northern Ireland had just 25 per cent possession, made 574 fewer passes and had 15 fewer attempts.
But even with this minimal involvement, they produced several jittery moments for the visitors.
Early injury to Borussia Monchengladbach centre-back Matthias Ginter did not help. Neither the fact that the benched Jonathan Tah, after his floundering versus the Dutch, was thrust back in.
Creaking midfielder Toni Kroos’ continuing struggles at Real Madrid also bled through. He offered little cover, plus was hustled out of the possession for Washington’s first chance.
Elite opposition in the finals will prey on these deficiencies. Just like the ruthless Netherlands.
Where there was just madness last Thursday, you can see the method behind Low’s decisions in Northern Ireland.
Tweaks to personnel can only improve this blend. A first start of the campaign for 20-year-old Havertz should not be delayed for much longer.
Beyond that, these hard-earned points maintain a three-point gap to the Dutch – who do ominously possess a game in hand.