BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgium coach Domenico Tedesco dropped veteran midfielder Axel Witsel on Friday when he named his first squad since being appointed last month with a mission to rebuild.
Tedesco opted not to select Witsel for upcoming matches against Sweden and Germany but insisted it wasn’t because the 34-year-old Atletico Madrid player is getting too old.
“We have many possibilities in midfield,” said Tedesco, who also snubbed the experienced Leander Dendoncker and Hans Vanaken in his 24-man list but included 35-year-old Jan Vertonghen. “It’s not the age.”
Witsel has made 130 appearances in his 15-year career with Belgium, scoring 12 goals. Tedesco said he traveled to Madrid to explain his decision to Witsel, insisting that the door remains open for him to return.
“This is the main message,” Tedesco said. “We just decided for this camp to see some new faces, to see some new young players.”
Tedesco last month replaced Roberto Martinez, who led Belgium to a third-place finish at the 2018 World Cup and was in charge of the team for six years. Martinez stepped down after the Red Devils failed to progress to the knockout stage of the 2022 tournament in Qatar.
Tedesco’s short-term goal is to qualify Belgium for the 2024 European Championship. The Red Devils start their qualifying campaign next week against Sweden. They will then play Germany in a friendly on March 28.
Belgium was ranked No. 1 by FIFA for four years during Martinez’s tenure but never won a major tournament. Several members of the “Golden Generation” of Belgian players — Eden Hazard, Toby Alderweireld and Simon Mignolet — announced their retirement from international soccer after the tournament in Qatar.
Other experienced players like Michy Batshuayi, Dries Mertens, Youri Tielemans and Thorgan Hazard are out injured and were not available for selection.
Tedesco gave a first call-up to Romeo Lavia, a 19-year-old midfielder who has become a regular starter for Southampton in the Premier League.
Goalkeepers: Koen Casteels (Wolfsburg), Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid), Thomas Kaminski (Blackburn), Matz Sels (Strasbourg)
Defenders: Sebastiaan Bornauw (Wolfsburg), Timothy Castagne (Leicester), Zeno Debast (Anderlecht), Wout Faes (Leicester), Thomas Meunier (Borussia Dortmund), Alexis Saelemaekers (AC Milan), Arthur Theate (Rennes), Jan Vertonghen (Anderlecht)
Midfielders: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Romeo Lavia (Southampton), Orel Mangala (Nottingham Forest), Amadou Onana (Everton), Dennis Praet (Leicester)
Forwards: Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid), Charles De Ketelaere (AC Milan), Jeremy Doku (Rennes), Romelu Lukaku (Inter Milan), Dodi Lukebakio (Hertha Berlin), Lois Openda (Lens), Leandro Trossard (Arsenal)
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