Axel Witsel wants Belgium to emulate the success in Russia four years ago as the Red Devils aim for World Cup glory in what could be the last tournament for their 'Golden Generation'.

A team boasting the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Witsel, Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku has been present for the past decade, significantly improving their fortunes.

Belgium reached the quarter-finals at Brazil 2014 and finished third four years later in Russia – a marked improvement after only passing the last-16 stage once in their first nine appearances (fourth in 1986).

Roberto Martinez's side lost to eventual champions France in Russia and Witsel hopes to recreate the 2018 showing, as the tournament in Qatar presents the last chance for many of their experienced squad.

"I would say we have even more experience than in 2018. Now time will tell if we are stronger or weaker than in 2018," the 33-year-old said.

"It's true that in 2018, we had an extraordinary run. We were all really, collectively, and individually, on top. And that's what we want to reproduce here. After that, as I said, it's a different World Cup from the others.

"The small advantage is that some of us have known each other for ten years, others a little less. But we've been together for a long time.

"When you don't really have time to prepare for a World Cup, I think that's a point that shouldn't be overlooked."

While Belgium are seen as a side that can cause problems for any opponent in the Middle East, Martinez's team are not ranked among the favourites and Witsel backed Brazil to go all the way.

"In any case, I think it is logical. For me, the great favourite of this tournament is Brazil. But that's my opinion," he added,

"I think, when you look at the team they have, you can't say that we are at that level. For me, Brazil is the big favourite."

Belgium begin their campaign in Group F against Canada on Wednesday before facing Morocco and Croatia.

Marcos Llorente has praised off-season additions in Axel Witsel and Alvaro Morata, prompting him to suggest Atletico Madrid will compete on all fronts this upcoming term.

While the likes of Luis Suarez, Hector Herrera and Sime Vrsaljko departed this off-season, Witsel joined Atleti on a free transfer upon the expiry of his contract with Borussia Dortmund, while Morata returns from his loan spell at Juventus.

Llorente became a utility of sorts for Diego Simeone last term, earning time on the pitch as a right-back, on the right wing and in central midfield as Atleti sputtered to a third-placed finish in LaLiga.

The 27-year-old believes that while Witsel has needed some time to adapt to Simeone's game plan, he will bolster Atleti's midfield, enabling them to compete on both domestic and continental fronts.

"He is a lovely guy who is going to help us a lot," Llorente told Cadena Ser. "He even has to adapt because coming here is not easy. He is going to give us a better exit from our own half in possession, he has a very good touch.

"He is adapting to what the coach asks of him little by little, and he is a smart guy who learns quickly. I think he is going to have a great season.

"I think the team will compete in all competitions, we have a team for that. The new additions will make us grow more, we are very confident in what we can do."

Despite the lack of positional continuity, Llorente has nevertheless found a home at Atleti under Simeone since arriving in 2019, maximising his dynamism and forcing his way into Spain national team selection.

While adding he "belongs" at Atletico Madrid, Llorente backed his club and international team-mate in Alvaro Morata, who he believes will hit the ground running before the World Cup.

"I see him very well. I think he can bring us many qualities, we all know him even if he has been away," Llorente said. "His matches with the national team show it, he is a top striker who is going to come in handy.

"We want to show what we are capable of. Last season we were very irregular, things didn't work out for us. It was a season that we did not count on, although we finished well.

"The objective is to continue with what was seen in that ending. Players arrive who raise the quality of the team, so we are looking forward to this beginning."

Axel Witsel lauded Atletico Madrid's squad depth after he was unveiled as the club's latest signing on Wednesday.

Witsel joined Atleti on a free transfer upon the expiry of his contract with Borussia Dortmund, after lucrative spells with Zenit Saint Petersburg and Tianjin Quanjian.

Despite Hector Herrera's departure, the Belgium international bolsters Atleti's midfield along with the return of Saul Niguez from his loan at Chelsea, joining Geoffrey Kondogbia and Daniel Wass as a defensive presence in the middle.

During his presentation at the Wanda Metropolitano, Witsel asserted this Atletico Madrid squad is the one with the "highest quality" over his career.

"This is a group with a lot of quality," Witsel said. "I could say many players – Koke, Joao [Felix], [Antoine] Griezmann, Yannick [Carrasco], [Matheus] Cunha.

"We have a group with a lot of quality and it is very important because there is a very good mentality, with players who always want to work hard.

"I've been through many clubs and it's true that the fact of being here and having trained with the group, I think it's the group with the highest quality of all my career. There are a lot of internationals, I'm very proud to be here and to be part of this group."

Despite his age, Witsel showed continued durability last season, only missing five games in all competitions for Dortmund last season. Their season ended poorly though, with a last-16 exit in Europa League following a group stage knockout in the Champions League, while eventually finishing eight points off Bundesliga winners Bayern Munich.

The 33-year-old also praised new boss Diego Simeone, citing him as a motivating factor behind joining Atleti, along with their ability to keep him playing at the highest level, after his expiry at Dortmund.

"It is clear, he is one of the best coaches in the world, it is one of the reasons why I am here," he said. "In recent days we have focused on the physical and I have not been able to talk much with him, but I am very proud to work with him.

"It doesn't matter how old you are, at 33 or 23 you can always learn something, and you can always learn from him.

"I was free and I chose Atletico because I wanted to continue at a high level, I know I don't have ten years left, but I want to take advantage of my last few years to play at the highest level, Atletico is at that level and that's why I'm here."

Axel Witsel revealed an immediate connection with Diego Simeone helped him decide on a move to Atletico Madrid.

Atleti finalised Witsel's arrival on a free transfer from Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday, following four seasons in the Bundesliga.

The Belgium international appears likely to be a regular fixture under the pragmatic Simeone, providing Rodrigo de Paul with an added defensive presence in midfield.

While explaining his desire to keep playing at a high level after leaving Dortmund, Witsel cited Simeone's memory of his performance for Zenit against Atletico at the old Vicente Calderon as a reflection of how he is valued at his new club.

"I decided to come here because for me it's a top club," Witsel said. "I think Atletico Madrid is one of the eight best clubs in the world, and I really wanted to stay in the top level after Dortmund.

"I talked to him [Simeone] a few weeks ago, we had directly a very good feeling. He told me, 'I remember you from 2013', when I played with Zenit at the old stadium.

"I knew he wanted me in the team and I think this is really important when you arrive in a new club. I didn't need my brother Yannick [Carrasco] to tell me I had to come to Atletico Madrid, in my head it was already clear."

The 33-year-old represents a positional need for Atletico after Hector Herrera's departure, while links to Boubacar Kamara were scuppered by his move to Aston Villa.

Atletico Madrid have announced the signing of Axel Witsel on a free transfer following his departure from Borussia Dortmund.

Witsel's BVB contract expired at the end of June after a four-year spell in Dortmund, and he has signed on for a single season at Atletico.

Atletico had reportedly been keen on Boubacar Kamara but are said to have shifted focus to Witsel after the 22-year-old joined Aston Villa.

Hector Herrera's departure to Houston Dynamo meant midfield reinforcements were a necessity for Diego Simeone.

And in 33-year-old Witsel he has added experience and ability, with the Belgium international playing an important role at Dortmund right until his exit.

Witsel made 29 Bundesliga appearances last season as Dortmund finished second to Bayern Munich, though it was long expected he would depart this year.

Simeone will hope Witsel adds much-needed grit to a midfield that was often unconvincing last term, as Atletico's title defence never really got going.

Spain will be the sixth country Witsel has played in during his distinguished career, having previously had spells in his native Belgium, Portugal, Russia, China and Germany.

Belgium bounced back from their thumping by the Netherlands with an emphatic 6-1 Nations League win over Poland on Wednesday.

Roberto Martinez's side suffered a resounding 4-1 defeat to the Oranje on Friday, but a much-improved display at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels saw them return to winning ways in Group A4.

They fell behind to Robert Lewandowski's 28th-minute strike, yet pulled level before half-time thanks to Axel Witsel's superb effort from outside the penalty area.

Kevin De Bruyne then put them ahead after the interval, before a double from substitute Leandro Trossard, a long-range strike from Leander Dendoncker and a late sixth from Lois Openda put the seal on a convincing win.

Despite a bright start, Belgium fell behind shortly before the half-hour mark when Lewandowski controlled Sebastian Szymanski's pass before clipping past the onrushing Simon Mignolet.

However, the Red Devils pulled level three minutes before the interval, Witsel superbly whipping in from 20 yards after Bartlomiej Dragowski had kept out De Bruyne's close-range effort.

Dragowski made an excellent double stop after the break, first pawing away Dendoncker's header and then getting down well to repel Eden Hazard's drive. 

He was powerless to stop De Bruyne in the 59th minute, though, as the Manchester City man rolled past him after being played in by Hazard. 

Trossard made it three with a cool finish after cutting in from the right, before the Brighton and Hove Albion forward added a second with a looping strike from the edge of the penalty area. 

Dendoncker added a fifth with a sublime strike from 25 yards that flashed past Dragowksi, before substitute Openda wrapped up the scoring with almost the last kick of the game.

Borussia Dortmund bade farewell to several players on an emotional day at Signal Iduna Park, with Erling Haaland signing off in style.

Haaland is moving to Manchester City ahead of the 2022-23 season, with that move confirmed this week.

The 21-year-old – who joined Dortmund from Salzburg in 2019-20 – was presented with a wreath prior to kick-off on Saturday, as Dortmund faced Hertha Berlin in their final Bundesliga game of the season.

He was not the only player given an ovation before the match, with Axel Witsel and Dan-Axel Zagadou, who are leaving the club following the expiration of their contracts, and departing loanees Marin Pongracic and Reinier Jesus also paraded on the pitch, along with Marcel Schmelzer, who has retired.

Long-time sporting director Michael Zorc is also retiring, and was given a huge send-off by the Dortmund crowd.

The enthusiasm in the stands was not initially matched on the pitch, as relegation-threatened Hertha took an 18th-minute lead through Ishak Belfodil's penalty.

However, Haaland got his farewell goal with 22 minutes of normal time remaining, coolly slamming in an 86th Dortmund strike from the spot, in what was his 89th appearance for the club.

Zagadou and Witsel were both subbed off with the game winding down and, fittingly, it was the latter's replacement who netted Dortmund's winner.

Marco Rose insisted Dortmund would "not stop playing football" in the wake of Haaland's departure and 17-year-old Youssoufa Moukoko showed the future is bright as he converted from Jude Bellingham's sublime pass.

Haaland was able to enjoy a standing ovation as he made way, with Dortmund's 2-1 victory also ensuring Hertha will be in the relegation play-off.

Dortmund's place in second was already sealed, but below them, Freiburg's attempt to get into the Champions League fell just short as they lost 2-1 to Bayer Leverkusen, who took third, while RB Leipzig finished fourth.

Freiburg still have the DFB-Pokal final against Leipzig to look forward to but ultimately slipped down to sixth, with Taiwo Awoniyi's late penalty sending Union Berlin into fifth with a 3-2 win over VfL Bochum.

Antonio Rudiger is out of contract with Chelsea after the season. 

The 28-year-old will have several suitors. 

Real Madrid are prepared to make major changes to acquire him.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID PLOT RUDIGER MOVE

Real Madrid are set to make a push for Antonio Rudiger next off-season, reports AS. 

The centre-back wants €12million (£10m) in annual salary but is not likely to get it from Chelsea. 

Carlo Ancelotti would like to bring Rudiger aboard but may need to clear several other salaries to do so.

Among those potentially on the way out according to AS are Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard, Isco and Marcelo. 

 

ROUND-UP

- Juventus will try to lure Axel Witsel from Borussia Dortmund in the next transfer window, says Bild. Witsel will be out of contract after the season. 

- Roma could shore up their defence by adding Nacho from Real Madrid in January, says Calciomercato. 

- Tottenham and other suitors are eyeing 20-year-old Monaco defender Benoit Badiashile, reports Calciomercato.

- Genoa are set to sack head coach Davide Ballardini and appoint Andriy Shevchenko as his replacement, reports Gianluca Di Marzio.

Is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer running out of time at Old Trafford?

Manchester United are already five points off the pace in the Premier League and pressure is mounting.

United, though, are believed to be firmly in favour of sticking with their manager.

 

TOP STORY – SOLSKJAER WANTED AT THE WHEEL

Manchester United are still backing under-fire manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, according to Fabrizio Romano.

United slumped to a 4-2 Premier League defeat to Leicester City at the weekend, which has left the Red Devils with just two wins from their past seven games across all competitions.

As pressure mounts on Solskjaer, United still reportedly have faith in the Norwegian amid links with the likes of Antonio Conte, Zinedine Zidane and Erik ten Hag.

 

ROUND-UP

- Calciomercato reports Serie A champions Inter are ready to battle Arsenal for Madrid forward Luka Jovic. The Serbia international has struggled for form and fitness in the Spanish capital.

PSG want to swap Mauro Icardi for Barcelona's Sergio Aguero, claims El Nacional. The reports says Lionel Messi wants to reunite with countryman Aguero, who left Manchester City for Barca, only for Messi to join PSG.

- Monaco's Aurelien Tchouameni, Borussia Dortmund's Axel Witsel, Denis Zakaria of Borussia Monchengladbach and Ajax's Ryan Gravenberch are among Juventus' transfer targets as they look to add options in midfield, per Tuttosport. Tchouameni has also been linked with Chelsea, Manchester United, Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester City, while Roma have been eyeing Zakaria.

Romelu Lukaku's double helped Belgium recover from an early setback in Tallinn as they saw off Estonia 5-2 to retain top spot in their World Cup qualifying group.

The Red Devils fell behind for the third time in four Group E matches when Mattias Kait fired the hosts – ranked 110 in the world – into a shock lead inside two minutes at A. Le Coq Arena.

But Belgium, in action for the first time since their Euro 2020 quarter-final loss to Italy, replied before the half-hour mark through a Hans Vanaken header and Lukaku's clinical finish.

Lukaku doubled his tally early in the second half and further goals followed from Axel Witsel and substitute Thomas Foket as Roberto Martinez's side made it three wins and a draw from their first four qualifying fixtures, despite Erik Sorga netting a late consolation for Estonia.

Estonia had won their previous three matches and found themselves ahead early on when Kait turned over possession, carried the ball forward and rifled a shot away from Thibaut Courtois.

Belgium soon found their rhythm and were on level terms 20 minutes later thanks to Vanaken, who added to the two goals scored in the 8-0 win over Belarus last time out in qualifying with a headed equaliser from five yards out.

Lukaku then profited from some poor home defending to fire Martinez's men in front, the prolific striker picking his spot after Karol Mets' clearance hit team-mate Vladislav Kreida and fell into his path.

Alexis Saelemaekers went close to extending Belgium's lead with a shot that crashed back off the frame of the goal, but they did not have to wait much longer for their third as Lukaku worked a yard of space and curled the ball past Karl Hein.

Witsel tapped in from close range following some excellent work from Yannick Carrasco, who also played a superb pass over the top for Foket – introduced from the bench 10 minutes earlier – to ghost in behind for Belgium's fifth.

Another substitute in Sorga pulled one back for Estonia seven minutes from time, but Belgium were already home and dry by that point.

Borussia Dortmund assistant coach Rene Maric has claimed reports linking Axel Witsel with a €5million move to Aston Villa are "obvious nonsense".

Premier League club Villa are in the market for a midfielder and are rumoured to have been offered Dortmund's 32-year-old Belgium international Witsel.

Injury blighted Witsel's 2020-21 campaign but the former Zenit St Petersburg midfielder has started all three of Dortmund's Bundesliga games so far this season, and the DFB-Supercup, albeit he has been required to fill in at the back rather than in his usual role.

Witsel played the full match as Dortmund edged out Hoffenheim 3-2 thanks to Erling Haaland's late winner on Friday, though that did not stop speculation over his future.

However, in a comical twist, Dortmund assistant Maric used his official social media account to rubbish the reports.

"It's obvious nonsense, can't understand how some people are pretending it's not just to make a headline," Maric tweeted in response to a post quoting a report written by Sport Witness, which cited Tuttosport as the source.

Maric did not leave it there, however, as when he was asked for a "source" to back up his statement, the coach replied with a photo of himself and Witsel.

Since joining Dortmund from Chinese Super League side Tianjin Tianhai in 2018, Witsel has established himself as one of the leading holding midfielders in the Bundesliga.

Witsel has made 79 appearances in Germany's top flight for Dortmund, helping BVB to 51 victories.

Dortmund's win percentage with Witsel in the side is 64.6, yet the rate drops to 57.7 without the Belgian, who has missed 26 league games in total.

BVB also average slightly more points per game with Witsel than without him – 2.1 compared to 1.9.

Paris Saint-Germain have lined up several options to replace Kylian Mbappe.

A deal with Real Madrid could create a domino effect. 

Who might be on the move to PSG?

 

TOP STORY – PSG LINE UP MBAPPE REPLACEMENTS

Paris Saint-Germain do not plan to let Kylian Mbappe go to Real Madrid this transfer window without replacing him. 

The French giants have their eyes on multiple players should Los Blancos' reported €180million bid for the striker succeed. 

Two Brazilians currently in the Premier League top the list, as Globo Esporte says PSG want Gabriel Jesus – though Pep Guardiola said he does not expect any more departures from Manchester City. 

PSG also reportedly are weighing up a bid for Everton's Richarlison, says ESPN Brasil. 

And though all indications have been that Erling Haaland will stay put with Borussia Dortmund, the Star says PSG could make another bid if Mbappe departs. 

 

ROUND-UP

- Jules Kounde is ready to move from Sevilla to Chelsea, says Sky Sports News, but the Blues are balking at the Spanish club's €80m asking price and are prepared to offer only about €50m.

- Everton are closing in on a swap deal that would send James Rodriguez to Porto with Luis Diaz joining the Toffees, reports Fabrizio Romano. 

- Arsenal's Ainsley Maitland-Niles could also be on the move to Everton, reports Sky Sports News, who say the Premier League side have also asked Celtic about Odsonne Edouard

- Meanwhile, Juventus are in talks with Everton about a deal for Moise Kean, who has become their top priority with Cristiano Ronaldo's departure, says Romano.

- Roma could make a move for Atletico Madrid's Hector Herrera, according to Calciomercato. 

- Aston Villa are weighing a move for Borussia Dortmund midfielder Axel Witsel, reports Tuttosport. 

- Atalanta have their eyes on AZ Alkmaar's Teun Koopmeiners, says Calciomercato. 

Roberto Martinez says he has never seen "carefree" Eden Hazard work so hard and is also hopeful of having Kevin De Bruyne back to fitness for Belgium's clash with Denmark.

Hazard has been blighted by injuries during his two seasons at Real Madrid and was not deemed ready to start Belgium's 3-0 win over Russia in Saturday's Group B opener.

The 30-year-old played the final 18 minutes in Saint Petersburg – only his second international outing in 19 months, six days after coming on as a substitute against Croatia.

He managed only 18 touches of the ball during his time on the field, but Martinez is pleased with the progress being made by the Madrid forward to get back to his best.

"I've never seen him work so hard off the field," Martinez said at a news conference on Sunday. "As a captain, he feels the responsibility. From the first day he was with us, he works hard.

"Against Russia, that's the first time I've seen a carefree Hazard. Before that I always saw him thinking on the pitch.

"Now he is playing more intuitively, making moves and getting away from defenders. The challenge now is to last for 90 minutes.

"He worked individually again today, but he will get more minutes against Denmark and even more against Finland, when he should be able to play the full 90."

De Bruyne played no part in Belgium's comfortable win against Russia, secured thanks to a couple of Romelu Lukaku goals and one for Thomas Meunier.

The Manchester City man is recovering from the fractured nose and left orbital he sustained in his club side's loss to Chelsea in the Champions League final two weeks ago.

However, De Bruyne has a chance of being ready in time to feature against Denmark in Copenhagen on Thursday.

"He will resume training tomorrow," Martinez said. "After that we'll evaluate whether he can come to Copenhagen with us to play against Denmark."

Martinez also revealed that Axel Witsel will make a surprise return to action next week, just five months after tearing his Achilles tendon while playing for Borussia Dortmund.

"My idea was to have him start against Finland for the first time," he said. "That's why I named him in the 26-man group.

"But since he is ahead of schedule, he will be given some minutes against Denmark."

Belgium will be looking to build on a run of just one defeat in their last 24 matches in all competitions when they travel to Denmark.

The Danes lost 1-0 to Finland in their Group B opener, a game that was overshadowed by Christian Eriksen suffering a cardiac arrest during the first half.

Eriksen was given CPR on the pitch by medics and is now "awake" and recovering in hospital.

Denmark's players returned to the field less than two hours later and were beaten by a Joel Pohjanpalo goal, with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg missing from the penalty spot.

"They were not themselves against Finland," Martinez said. "The circumstances with Eriksen weighed on the group. 

"We can expect a different Denmark and a very tough game on Thursday. You cannot compare the circumstances

"That will be a very emotional game, especially before kick-off. They have a very strong team, as we know from the Nations League. 

"The Danes will also have the support of the fans. But we need those kinds of matches. The match should be a celebration in honour of Eriksen, as it were."

Denmark and Belgium's only previous meeting at a major tournament was in the group stages of Euro 1984, the Danes winning that one 3-2 after recovering from two goals down.

Widespread concern met the decision for Denmark and Finland to return to the pitch less than two hours after Christian Eriksen had first collapsed in Copenhagen on Saturday.

An alarming incident prompted serious fears for Eriksen's life, fears that were eased but not eradicated by positive updates on the midfielder's condition.

For those watching from afar, the swift restart could not have been anticipated. There was wonder instead for how Belgium and Russia could possibly play later.

The Belgium squad features Eriksen's Inter team-mate Romelu Lukaku and long-term Ajax and Tottenham colleagues Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.

But, sure enough, confirmation was forthcoming of the resumption in Group B's first fixture, set for 20:30 CET, with Belgium's kick-off to follow as scheduled half an hour later.

Understandably, Denmark turned in a distracted display. Lacking the same enthusiasm as earlier, they fell to a 1-0 defeat that would usually have been considered a major upset. Few were thinking about Finland's historic result, minds focused instead on Eriksen.

Indeed, it was a similar story in Saint Petersburg, even if Russia made for accommodating hosts.

Lukaku profited from hapless Andrey Semenov defending and finished ruthlessly after 10 minutes. Rather than revel in his eighth tournament goal – the most of any Belgium player – the forward made for a nearby television camera.

"Chris," he bellowed, reaching the lens. "Chris, stay strong. I love you."

Eriksen occupied Lukaku's thoughts even at a moment of apparent elation, an action that backed up the words of UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin.

"At these times, the unity of the football family is so strong and [Eriksen] and his family carry with them the good wishes and prayers of everyone," Ceferin said.

Further tributes will follow and it is difficult to imagine how that agonising Parken Stadium wait for family, friends, team-mates, opponents and fans, eager for any news at all as medical staff worked at length, does not overshadow the entire tournament.

Lukaku will hope there is at least time for some Belgian cheer before the Euros concludes at Wembley next month.

If Eriksen continues to recover, the Red Devils striker can allow his attention to return to the professional task at hand: finally delivering finals glory for his country.

Now or never is the popular verdict. Belgium entered this competition with a squad that boasts the most caps and ranks second oldest, behind only Sweden.

Lukaku is 28 and should play at Qatar 2022 and beyond, but some of his team-mates may not.

While the defence is undoubtedly ageing, the injury issues that are dogging other star names have become increasingly, frustratingly regular.

As Belgium reached the latter stages of Brazil 2014, Euro 2016 and Russia 2018 – only France also figured in the quarter-finals of all three tournaments – no outfield players started more matches than Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Axel Witsel (all 15 – tied with Alderweireld).

In 2020-2021, the trio were restricted to 11, 36 and 18 club starts respectively.

Hazard, having dealt with a series of muscle problems, started from the bench on Saturday. De Bruyne (orbital fracture) and Witsel (torn Achilles tendon) are both still recovering.

"Those are players who have something extra," said Dries Mertens, who took up one of the vacant attacking roles. "To not have three players like that, we're going to feel that, but we have to step up and be ready."

Leander Dendoncker stepped in for Witsel and said: "Axel has such a massive role in the squad, so it's logical we're talking about him. Kevin and Eden aren't here now either, and we're all talking about their absence. It's normal; they've earned it."

But it was Lukaku who ensured that absence was not felt. His clinical opener wrecked Russian dreams and might have been quickly followed by a second had Georgi Dzhikiya not expertly intervened. There were two minutes remaining when he belatedly hit the net again for Belgium's third, celebrated in more traditional fashion.

The Nerazzurri superstar has now been involved in 26 goals (22 goals, four assists) in his 19 games for Belgium since the World Cup.

Of Lukaku's nine finals goals, only one has arrived in the knockout stages, but this early effort was crucial in seizing control of the group. On this form, he will surely also add to that tally.

For all that this was an impressive win as Hazard featured sparingly and two key midfielders not at all, there is an argument – at least from those studying their wallcharts – Belgium might actually be better served finishing second in their pool. That could potentially mean no repeat of 2018, when they landed in the trickier half of the draw and met France in the last four. The same scenario is very possible again from first place.

That was not something for Lukaku to worry about on this occasion, though.

His friend's welfare was of primary concern, and then a talismanic outing to lift spirits just a little at the end of a tough day for football.

Kevin De Bruyne is progressing well in his injury recovery despite being ruled out of Belgium's Euro 2020 opener against Russia in St Petersburg.

Manchester City playmaker De Bruyne suffered fractures to his nose and orbital bone during last month's Champions League final defeat to Chelsea.

The sight of the 29-year-old being groggily helped from the field in Porto initially placed doubts over his participation at Euro 2020, but he has joined up with Roberto Martinez's squad.

Although Saturday's Group B opener comes too soon for De Bruyne, Martinez suggested he could feature before the end of the round robin stage, with the recently crowned PFA Footballer of the Year set to resume training alongside his team-mates when they return from their assignment at Krestovsky Stadium.

"It was always a medical direction. Kevin had to go through a few stages and he has been through those," the Belgium head coach explained at a pre-match news conference on Friday.

"Yesterday he had a very positive day on the grass but it wasn't with the group.

"The next two days will be really important to get him back into moving freely and starting to get the exercise that is needed before he can come to the group."

Another experienced member of Martinez's squad, Borussia Dortmund midfielder Axel Witsel, is closing in on a return to action.

Witsel has not played competitive football since suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in January but was still handed a place in the Red Devils' 26-man squad.

Like De Bruyne, he has not travelled to St Petersburg.

"The situation with Axel is very clear. He is part of the 26. His work in the past few days has been totally with the group and has been really satisfactory," Martinez said.

"Then we're going to take every day to try to add to that normality of Axel with the group. The decision not to travel to St Petersburg was to get another two days of work and then he will join the group again when we come back.

"From that point I don't expect Axel to miss a lot more."

He added: "Both players are following an individual programme. We're very happy with the progress in the last two days.

"Neither could join for tomorrow's game but both players are progressing really well and they're going to be with the group as soon as we come back."

Belgium will be keen to call upon De Bruyne's creative expertise as soon as possible.

Across 25 Premier League games in 2020-21, he delivered 12 assists at a rate of one every 167 – the most prolific return of any players to record three assists or more in England's top flight.

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