Belgium coach Roberto Martinez has apologised to journalists for making their lives harder by putting an end to the dramas and in-fighting that have characterised Belgian squads in the past.
Martinez’s side kicked off their World Cup campaign with a comfortable 3-0 win over Panama and are determined to continue to let their football do the talking.
Speaking to reporters before today’s Group G match against Tunisia at Moscow’s Spartak Stadium, the former Wigan and Everton manager said: “We don’t want to be boring but we’re a football team — we’re not here to fill pages.
“We’re here to work and to fit all the exceptional talent we have on the field. OK, we have lots of players who are big stars at their clubs but we’re not here to find blame or look for ways out.
There are clear parallels here between the work Martinez is doing with Belgium’s golden generation of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, and the quiet revolution Gareth Southgate is leading with England.
Both stacked with Premier League talent, the two sides meet in Kaliningrad on Thursday and so far their campaigns have been refreshingly calm and incident-free.
Martinez was a surprise appointment in 2016, having endured a difficult end to his time at Goodison Park, but his Belgian side have lost just once in 21 games and are ranked third in the world.
“World Cups don’t respect reputations or names, the only thing that matters is what happens on the pitch,” said Martinez.
“All we’ve done so far is qualify. So you can analyse it from the outside any way you want but we will work as a team and improve on the Panama game, retain the good things we did and go from there.”
England beat Tunisia 2-1 but needed a stoppage-time Harry Kane goal to do so and Martinez was impressed with their tactical flexibility and quality on the ball.
He described the North African team as “brave” and “dynamic” but said Belgium just need to “be ourselves”, as they were once they settled down against Panama.
All of this was explained in English, as Martinez’s Flemish and French are works in progress.
But as Axel Witsel explained, this is not a problem in a squad as multi-cultural and multi-lingual as Belgium’s.
“Most of the time, we use English in training — most of us speak English, so there are no worries,” the China-based midfielder said.
“There is no dominant language but we are all Belgian.”
Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul and his squad are also comfortable switching between languages but for them today’s game will be an expression of their Arab identity. With Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia already eliminated, Maaloul said: “There is no doubt the eyes of the Arab world are pinned on us and we feel that sense of pressure — we know we can’t lose tomorrow.”
He admitted his side struggled with England’s “intensity” and singled out Raheem Sterling’s speed as a particular concern, but said Tunisia had learned from the defeat and would be ready to compete with another “team to be reckoned with”.
Maaloul said he was especially impressed with England’s mobile midfield, particularly in the first 20 minutes, but suggested that Belgium carry a greater offensive threat and that would mean a few changes to his side.
Martinez gave little away in terms of his selection, confirming only that Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen are still short of match fitness.
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