Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard have denied rumours of a major rift in the Belgium squad, despite a frank exchange of views between players during a team meeting.
Jan Vertonghen is understood to have confronted Hazard in recent days after he and Kevin De Bruyne delivered withering assessments of the team’s World Cup chances during interviews.
Hazard said after the team’s shock 2-0 defeat by Morocco: “Our defenders are not the fastest, and they know that.”
At an ensuing team meeting, Vertonghen, the former Tottenham defender, was said to have asked Hazard: “You think I’m too slow?” Sources claimed Hazard, the former Chelsea forward, replied: “Yes, it’s true. But I am old, too.”
However, in a press conference at their training base an hour out of Doha, Courtois and Hazard laughed off suggestions of a major bust-up.
“Nothing happened after the game against Morocco,” Hazard said. “The rumours? A lot of nonsense. We had a good meeting yesterday with all the players. There were no discussions with Vertonghen in the dressing-room. I did not fight with him. I’m not stupid. He’s bigger than me [laughs].”
Hazard added of his remarks about defenders being slow: “No, the guys know my character. Jan came to talk to me about it, and I told him that it was true, he is not fast [smile], and he agreed. “I laugh a lot, but when it’s time to be serious, I am.”
Courtois said: “I don’t think we have problems inside the team. I think the stories from outside are to create problems inside … nobody is happy. Especially because we have a must-win match on Thursday [against Croatia], but this brings everyone closer together.”
He added later: “The problem is there are too many lies these days with social media.”
Tensions in the squad had already been high after De Bruyne said last week of Belgium’s World Cup hopes: “No chance, we’re too old.”
In response to De Bruyne’s comments, Hazard said: “Sometimes, in interviews, you say things without thinking about the consequences. Yes, we are older than we were four years ago, it’s true; I am, Kevin is, Thibaut is. That’s the way it is. But Kevin has confidence in us, otherwise he wouldn’t be here.”
Courtois said: “There is no problem within the group. Of course, you are not happy when you lose. These outside stories bring us closer together. It will be a difficult game on Thursday. We will give everything.”
Belgium manager Roberto Martinez also denied suggestions his squad had been distracted by De Bruyne’s verdict.
“At a World Cup, players have to speak to the media every day; 90 per cent of it will be positive, but there are always one or two lines that don’t fit into the context,” he said. “We are all professionals, and we know how to perform. A player is allowed to air their view. Maybe it was a double bluff. It’s what happens behind the scenes that matters.”
Hazard, a bit-part Real Madrid player, refused to say whether the must-win Group F match against Croatia tomorrow could be his last at international level. “I will not approach this match by saying that it is my last because, in my head, we will still go far,” he remarked.
Belgium will be without Amadou Onana, who received his second yellow card
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