The irony of Everton sacking Rafael Benitez on the day Carlo Ancelotti won the first trophy of his second Real Madrid stint was not lost on the Goodison Park faithful.

Ancelotti stunned Everton in June by leaving to return to Madrid. While there can be no comparison between Los Blancos when it comes to allure, it cut deep that a manager who seemed committed to a long-term project on Merseyside, had left at the first opportunity.

Not that Ancelotti's 18 months at Everton had been a roaring success. His final game was a 5-0 drubbing at Manchester City – the heaviest defeat of the Italian's managerial career, in his 1,167th match.

That result condemned Everton to a 10th-placed finish. Just City and Manchester United won more away games last term in the Premier League, yet the Toffees suffered nine home defeats, with only the three relegated sides losing more on their own turf.

But there was a feeling that Everton might have enough to push on under Ancelotti, should reinforcements arrive.

Instead, it was former Liverpool boss Benitez, who had replaced Ancelotti for an ill-fated spell at Madrid in 2015, who arrived at Goodison.

An unpopular pick among the fanbase, the Spaniard was always starting from behind the eight-ball.

As was inevitable, the experiment failed. Benitez was sacked on Sunday after defeat at lowly Norwich City with Everton lingering six points above the bottom three after a run of one win in 13 league games (the club's joint-worst Premier League run) and facing the prospect of hiring a sixth permanent manager since 2016-17.

False promises

From Benitez's first news conference, it was clear that Everton, lavish spenders in recent years, were going to be cutting their cloth in line with tight financial limitations.

"You have to work in the context of having a director of football, the board, and financial restrictions," he said after becoming only the second manager to take over Everton and Liverpool. "Talk the talk and walk the walk? I prefer to walk the walk."

Only £1.7million was spent, but Everton started the league campaign brightly. Indeed, ahead of a September 13 game with Burnley, they had scored seven times, as many as they had in their last 10 games last term.

After a 1-1 draw with United on October 2, Everton had 14 points from their seven Premier League games, the most since they had gone on to secure a fourth-place finish in the competition in 2004-05 (16). 

Was that optimism built on solid foundations, though?

Benitez's system was based on counter-attacking, with Everton happy to surrender possession. Only once before October had they had more than 50 per cent of the ball (51.71 v Burnley).

It is a trend that has continued, with Everton – who have had more possession than only three top-flight teams across the season – only seeing more of the ball than their opponents on three further occasions. In each of those games, they lost.

However, to be a counter-attacking team you must be solid, and Everton are not. They have shipped 34 goals, with only four teams having weaker defences, while 11 goals have been conceded from set-pieces, the second-worst figure in the league (Ancelotti's team only allowed 10 from dead-ball situations in 2020-21).

But since Everton's woeful run started with a 1-0 defeat to West Ham on October 17, they have taken the lead just once – in a 5-2 home defeat to Watford. It is hard to sit back and play on the break if you are constantly chasing a game.

In total, the Toffees have spent 36 per cent of games losing this season (when the ball has been in play), and only 12 per cent of the time ahead. West Ham (12) are the sole team to have gained more points from a losing position than Everton (11), so at least Benitez's men showed resolve on occasion.

From October 17, Everton rank 18th for goals (11), 16th for shots on target (46/139), 12th for touches in the opposition box (259), 15th for chances created (93) and have the third-worst defence (27 goals conceded). They have an expected goals against (xGA) of 20.6 in that timeframe, the fourth-worst in the division. Their position is in no way false.

Everton did play forward under Benitez (41.6 per cent of their passes were in an attacking direction, up from 32.9 per cent last season) but on only 86 occasions have they strung together a move of 10 passes or more, which ranks them 18th in the league, while their 490 passes/crosses is the fifth-lowest total.

The bright sparks in that run have come from moments of inspiration. Demarai Gray's stunning winner against Arsenal or Richarlison's overhead kick at Norwich. Gray has been a standout performer, scoring five league goals from an xG of only 2.7, but it felt like there has been too much onus on the winger in recent weeks.

Though injuries to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison, Yerry Mina and Abdoulaye Doucoure must be taken into account, Benitez's mantra became "I know what the fans want", but he appeared to be talking the talk rather than walking the walk. 

Falling outs

With Everton craving stability and unity, it is odd that owner Farhad Moshiri (more on him later) turned to Benitez, who was never the right pick to unite the fanbase or stabilise the club.

He has fallen out with owners, sporting directors and high-profile players at previous clubs and, indeed, his time at Everton proved no different.

Director of football Marcel Brands, who signed a contract extension in April, was moved on when Everton fans protested over the running of the club back in December, following a 4-1 defeat to Liverpool. 

Evertonians' worst nightmare had played out, their rivals singing Benitez's name at Goodison after a humiliating defeat. It was the first time the Reds scored four goals in an away league derby since a 5-0 win in 1982, and Brands paid the price. His recruitment department followed, with director of medical services Dan Donachie having already left.

Everton offered their full backing to Benitez and five days later, claimed a vital win over Arsenal. But a cloud hung over that victory.

Since his arrival at Everton, Lucas Digne was second only to Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold for chances created by a Premier League defender (211). The France international had spoken openly of having been asked to play a more defensive role under Benitez, though behind the scenes matters appeared to boil over in a reported training-ground row.

Digne was dropped and did not return bar, for reasons known only to Benitez himself, to take a seat on the bench in a 3-2 defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion. The full-back received applause from the crowd when he warmed up, but did not come on despite Everton needing an equaliser late on in a game in which they only made two changes.

Last week, Digne was sold to Aston Villa. The sale eases the financial issues but leaves Everton without their third-most creative player (22 key passes) in the league this term. Indeed, only Andros Townsend (2.13) has crafted more opportunities for them this season than Digne (1.69) per 90 minutes.

With Digne and James Rodriguez, who left for Qatar in September, gone and Gylfi Sigurdsson not involved, Everton are without all three of their leading creators from 2020-21.

Moshiri mayhem

Benitez leaves with a 26.3 win percentage from 19 league games. Only Mike Walker performed worse in the Premier League era. His dismissal should have come sooner, it seemed pointless delaying the inevitable.

But for his faults, he is not the root cause of Everton's issues and owner Moshiri and chairman Bill Kenwright must look in the mirror.

Since Moshiri took over in 2016, Everton have recorded 1.37 points per game, ranking them 10th in the league, but a vast amount of investment has been made. So, what next?

Roberto Martinez, who was sacked in 2016, is reportedly a leading candidate. The Belgium boss won 21 Premier League games in his first season in charge at Everton, guiding them to a record points total of 72, but he won just 22 games combined across the next two years.

Lucien Favre has also been mooted. He averaged 2.08 points per game at Borussia Dortmund, a figure bettered by only Thomas Tuchel (2.09) and new boss Marco Rose (2.11), while the Swiss led the club to their third-best Bundesliga points tally in 2017-18. He could provide experience and a modern approach.

Graham Potter seems to have ruled himself out. Wayne Rooney is doing terrific work at Derby County, might he be an option?

For now though, Everton's immediate focus must be on avoiding a relegation scrap. 

Assistant Duncan Ferguson, who remained unbeaten in the league in his spell in charge prior to Ancelotti's arrival, seems a logical pick to take over on a temporary basis, with Villa visiting Goodison on Saturday, to perhaps provide some of the spark missing during Benitez's doomed tenure and buy Everton time to make the right choice.

With just 19 points from the first half of the season, their lowest tally at the halfway stage of a season since 2005-06 (17), Everton cannot afford to get this appointment wrong, too.

Belgium assistant coach Shaun Maloney has left his post to become manager of Hibernian.

Maloney was brought onto the coaching staff by Belgium boss Roberto Martinez – who managed him as a player at Wigan Athletic – in September 2018.

The former Scotland international has been part of the Red Devils set-up throughout their stay at the top of the FIFA World Rankings, and was Martinez's assistant during their run to the quarter-finals of Euro 2020.

The 38-year-old now leaves to take his first job as a manager, joining a Hibernian side that are seventh in the Scottish Premiership with 23 points from 18 games.

Eden Hazard is suffering through a "sad moment" in his career, according to Belgium boss Roberto Martinez.

Form and fitness woes have dogged Hazard since his big-money move to Real Madrid from Chelsea in 2019.

The 30-year-old soared to global prominence during a glittering seven-year spell at Stamford Bridge during which he won the Premier League twice, but he has failed to recapture that brilliance at the Santiago Bernabeu.

With Hazard only on the fringes of Carlo Ancelotti's Madrid team this season, Martinez conceded the forward is not having the best of times.

"In the recent years, he has lived with it, but he has been concentrated on the national team," said Martinez, whose side secured their spot at the 2022 World Cup last week.

"We need him to arrive at the World Cup prepared. We have grown as a dressing room.

"Eden is in a sad moment, football-wise. He has left winners projects [but] he doesn't have the rhythm of competition."

Hazard has made just four starts in a total of 10 appearances in LaLiga this season, spending 350 minutes on the pitch.

That time has yielded only one assist, with Hazard yet to score this term.

In his 116 appearances for his country, Hazard has found the net 33 times, but has added only one to that tally during qualifying for Qatar 2022.

Roberto Martinez knows expecations are always high for his Belgium side, and he was proud to tick another important box Saturday as the Red Devils secured qualification for the 2022 World Cup. 

While Belgium did not repeat their 2018 feat of being the first European side to qualify, they will take their place alongside Denmark, France and Germany in Qatar after defeating Estonia 3-1. 

Winners of all but two of their qualifiers since Martinez took charge in 2016, Belgium have plenty of reason to be proud. 

"We're in a situation where we always have to win everything," Martinez told reporters. “That is what the outside world expects and it creates extra pressure. I am very happy that our players are handling this well. They always go for it. 

"Every player is always in a special situation at his club, but with the national team all noses are in the same direction. That's a good mindset. It's not as obvious as it seems.

“We have now played 27 qualifiers under my reign. We won 25 of those. We should be happy about that. That is why we should really celebrate this qualification. That is not so normal.”

Belgium played their penultimate 2022 qualifier without star Romelu Lukaku, who continues to recover from an ankle injury. 

In his absence, Christian Benteke, Yannick Carrasco and Thorgan Hazard found the net in Brussels. 

Martinez said goalkeeper Thibault Coutois may not travel to Cardiff for Tuesday's Group E finale against Wales, but otherwise Belgium will put forth a representative side as their opponents try to lock up second place in the group. 

“We have to try to win there, play the game fairly," Martinez said. "The atmosphere will be very hostile as Wales want to qualify for the play-offs. I will therefore go there with the strongest possible core. 

"Only Courtois may not go to Wales, he is not completely fit and has not trained much. For the rest, no yellow cards or injuries, so everyone is coming along.”

Belgium boss Roberto Martinez has insisted that qualifying for the World Cup remains his priority, explaining he will take it slow with Eden Hazard as the Real Madrid forward makes his way back to full fitness.

The Red Devils are five points clear at the top of Group E with two games left to play and can seal their spot at the World Cup with a win over Estonia on Saturday.

Hazard has not started a game at club or international level since the 3-2 defeat against France in the semi-finals of the Nations League last month, however, with his last start for Madrid coming in a 2-1 loss to Sheriff on September 28.

The 30-year-old is set to feature in some way over Belgium's next two games, but Martinez is more concerned with his side confirming their place at the World Cup.

"At the moment all our work is based on trying to qualify," Martinez said ahead of the game against Estonia. "If we need two games to qualify, so be it, and that's our approach.

"If we can qualify with our home game in front of our fans then it's going to be another reset on how we approach the last game [against Wales], but it's important for us that we compete to qualify for the World Cup and try to preserve our position in the world rankings.

"Then it comes to bearing in mind all the [players'] physical states. In the case of Eden he hasn't played a lot of football so every day that we assess here we take a lot into consideration, the same way that we do with every single player that we have.

"The first goal is to qualify for the World Cup and see when we can do that."

Martinez explained that he was pleased with the former Chelsea winger's work in training since arriving for national team duty, but warned that Hazard is unlikely to be fit enough to play for a full match.

"Obviously, when you welcome Eden Hazard into the camp it's just to assess the work that he can do here and I've been very pleased in that respect," Martinez continued. 

"He looks happy, he looks forward to the game and then I just feel that we're going to use how he feels during the game to see if he can play 90 [minutes] or not.

"I would be surprised if he can play 90 at this stage [although] it depends a lot on what type of game we get. With Eden, we're going to go slowly and make sure we make good forward steps.

"I see him in a very, very good mental state, he looks really sharp, so for me, it's a question of seeing how long he can play rather than anything else."

After facing Estonia, Belgium's final Group E game is on Tuesday against Wales, who are five points behind them in the standings.

Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez has said that the country's "golden generation" of players should be appreciated more, even if they do not win a trophy.

Speaking ahead of the final round of European qualifiers for the Qatar 2022 World Cup, Martinez insisted that his Belgian side has proven how good they are by consistently being the number one ranked team by FIFA.

The Red Devils will seal qualification for Qatar if they beat Estonia at home on Saturday, or if Wales fail to beat Belarus in Cardiff on the same day.

Speaking to HLN, when asked about a lack of silverware, the former Wigan Athletic and Everton manager said: "This generation has changed Belgian football forever. They have twelve months until the next tournament. 

"I think we should be more attached to this generation. What this generation has given us is unique in Belgian football, and whatever happens, a generation with silverware or not, is not going to change what this generation has done.

"You will never find, or it will be very difficult to find, a generation with eight or nine players with over 100 caps that kept their number one ranking for such a long time, that have taken such a commitment to the national team.

"In the moment, they didn't need it. They could easily concentrate on their careers at club level, but the way that they want to develop the next generation, this generation goes a bit further than just wanting to have silverware.

"I think they teach us that we can challenge for silverware, we can challenge with the best national teams in the world, and that for me is more important because it will have an effect down the line.

"We need to enjoy it. This is a wonderful time for Belgian football. The consistency we had, we lost two games in the Nations League and were still number one in the world. Nobody gives you that status.

"It is because these players have been consistently winning in the last two years in a way that other national teams couldn't do.

"Of course, we cannot be happy with not winning, because that's not why you play football. You play football to try to win, but the reality is that the quality and commitment of this generation goes a bit further than winning silverware."

 

Questions have been raised in Belgium about Martinez being reluctant to bring in fresh faces, but the 48-year-old disagrees, believing that it makes sense to keep a consistent team together, while also defending his record of bringing new players in.

"My job is to try and create a team based on talented players who have been committed to the national team and who keep giving to the national team," he said.

"That's why we have eight players who have almost 100 caps, which is very rare. On the other side, we have had 24 debutants, which is a new squad completely.

"Of course, you can analyse it whichever way you want, but we have been really pleased with the balance. We don't have to change [for the sake of] change. 

"The opportunity of playing the Nations League, the European Championships and now the qualification for the World Cup all overlapping each other is giving us that smooth transition.

"It's a really good opportunity for the young players to show what they can do. It is not about the coach's decision. The generations can compete with each other, and football makes the decision.

"Any time there is an opportunity you need to show that you are ready as a youngster, and we have seen it. Jeremy Doku showed that he was ready and he started against Italy. This is not a specific coaching decision.

"This is a specific assessment of what happens in training, and we just promote that competition on the pitch.

"It is going to be a new opportunity for new faces, players who have been involved with us like Divock Origi, he hasn't played a lot at club level, he's got a good opportunity.

"We have a brand-new opportunity for a player like Dante Vanzeir, that he represents the great story of Union [SG]. You have the opportunity to see Charles De Ketelaere, confirming the good signs he showed against Italy.

"We are here to be a team, and I felt that every time we are here on the football pitch, we look like a group of players that have been together for a long time and that's the measurement that I always take into the teams."

Martinez also agreed with recent comments from Kevin De Bruyne that Belgium do not have the same depth as countries like France, adding “There are many aspects that makes our national team unique, and we always need to look at those.

"For example, we are a nation that represents 11 million people, that means that we cannot just select the players who are in good moments of form because we cannot afford to lose one talent.

"This golden generation has taken Belgium to a level that has never been seen before. To be over three years the number one team in the world, it shows we cannot treat our players as if we are going to have 100-200 at the same level that we can pick from.

"We have to work in a different way, go side-by-side with the talent through good moments, through difficult moments, and we cannot choose in that way, so it is the way that how we want to be successful is not the way that other national teams can do it, and that's the reality.

"The Nations League finals for us was the right place to be. We have to remember that, we were [part of] the best four national teams in Europe, and we had to beat Denmark and England to get there.

"I think that's something we need to appreciate. Okay, we lost a game against the world champions, and we were very very close, so it cannot be seen as a failure."

Kevin De Bruyne has been backed to roar back to form by Belgium boss Roberto Martinez as the Manchester City playmaker looks to come through a sticky patch.

Ahead of Saturday's derby against Manchester United, De Bruyne is looking to improve on his unusually quiet start to the season.

In 13 appearances across all competitions, he has managed three goals but just one assist and has played a full 90 minutes only three times, with Pep Guardiola suggesting his chief creator is feeling a little fatigued.

Martinez has selected De Bruyne in his squad for World Cup qualifiers against Estonia and Wales later this month, and quelled concerns about the 30-year-old's performance levels.

He pointed to City's EFL Cup penalty shoot-out loss to West Ham, and the Premier League defeat to Crystal Palace, and suggested those results had turned up the heat.

"When you play in a team expected to win every game, you'll get that level of scrutiny when you don't," Martinez said.

"Man City have been playing their normal brand, they lost a shoot-out then a game at home. I saw Kevin against Brugge [in the Champions League] and his body language was good. I'm not worried at all. We feel that his best football is coming back."

De Bruyne managed 10 goals and 18 assists for City in all competitions last season, creating 28 big chances for others in all. He has carved out five big chances so far in 2021-22, with such opportunities defined by Opta as openings from which a player should reasonably be expected to score.

 

At his best, Eden Hazard was producing spectacular numbers for Chelsea – peaking with 21 goals and 17 assists in 2018-19 – but De Bruyne's Belgium team-mate is enduring a difficult run now he is at Real Madrid.

After four goals and two assists in 21 games last term, Hazard has just a single entry in the latter column for his efforts after 10 outings this term.

Hazard warmed up extensively but was unused by Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti in this week's Champions League game against Shakhtar Donetsk, prompting an apology from the coach.

"Getting upset is normal. I believe getting upset is the fair reaction to manage this situation," Ancelotti said after the game. "I am so sorry. I told the players: I am sorry, but I didn't want to make any substitutions."

Hazard can stake a claim for greater involvement at Madrid by hitting top gear with Belgium, says Martinez.

"Eden is not playing as many minutes as we all thought," the Belgium boss said. "We've got a close relationship with the Real Madrid physical department and he's fully fit.

"His focus and attitude has given us a positive feeling. I know he's doing extra work to stay in shape, but he needs to be on the pitch to pick up the pace of the match. Coming to the national team can help him in that sense.

"It's important for every player to be on the pitch and achieve what he wants to achieve. It's a difficult situation when you can't, and it has been a difficult two years, but the signs are positive that he can get himself ready for a strong finish in the campaign."

Ronald Koeman has been sacked as head coach of Barcelona following a poor start to the club's first season without Lionel Messi in 17 years. 

Financial difficulties saw the six-time Ballon d'Or winner leave for Paris Saint-Germain and, in his absence, Koeman's side have struggled. 

The Dutchman replaced Quique Setien at Camp Nou in August 2020 and led Barca to Copa del Rey success in his first season, although they finished third in LaLiga and suffered a Champions League last-16 exit, as well as losing the Supercopa de Espana final to Athletic Bilbao. 

A shock 1-0 loss at Rayo Vallecano on Wednesday was the final straw and with the club in turmoil, it is imperative that Koeman's successor is chosen with great care. Stats Perform takes a look at the leading contenders who have been linked with the position. 

Xavi

With Koeman dismissed, Barcelona could turn to another club legend in Xavi, hoping the La Masia graduate can succeed where his predecessor failed with an unbalanced squad of ageing regulars and young talent. The former Spain international has presided over Qatari side Al Sadd since his retirement in 2019, leading them to a league title and six domestic cups.

Turning to a young coach who does not have any experience in Europe amid a time of upheaval could be viewed as a huge risk, however. Plus, will Xavi see this as the right time to return? The opportunity to manage Barca is likely to come around again at some stage.

Andrea Pirlo

Another candidate who enjoyed a glittering career as a central midfielder in his playing days, Pirlo replaced Maurizio Sarri at Juventus in August 2020 and won the Coppa Italia and the Supercoppa Italiana, but was sacked at the end of his debut season following a fourth-placed Serie A finish and another disappointing European exit, this time against Porto.

While Pirlo has experience of coaching in a top-five league, his stint in Turin hardly demonstrated the Italian has the credentials at this stage of his career to rescue an ailing Barcelona side.

Roberto Martinez

Martinez has a greater coaching pedigree, although the highest level he has managed at has come on the international stage with Belgium — a job he still holds. The 48-year-old guided the Red Devils to a third-place finish at the 2018 World Cup and took them to number one in the FIFA world rankings, though a major trophy continues to elude them.

At club level, however, he has managed Everton and Wigan Athletic in the Premier League, winning the FA Cup but also suffering relegation with the latter, and also Swansea City below the top tier — rather different jobs to the one that faces the newcomer at Barcelona.

Erik ten Hag

Could Barca turn to another Dutchman to try to turn their on-field fortunes around? Ten Hag has built his reputation at Ajax, having previously worked at Utrecht and Go Ahead Eagles, as well as a stint with Bayern Munich's second string. He has twice won the Eredivisie title, while he appeared set to reach the Champions League final in 2019, only for Tottenham to produce a stunning comeback in Amsterdam.

Barcelona, who know what it is like to be on the wrong end of a second-leg turnaround in Europe, have well-documented financial problems at the moment, potentially raising an issue if they want to try to lure away a coach under contract elsewhere.

Antonio Conte

Conte is out of work, at least meaning Barca would not have to pay any compensation to appoint him. However, that does not mean the Italian comes cheaply, considering he has a hugely impressive resume. The former Juve boss made a quick impact at his previous two jobs, having returned to club duties after a spell in charge of the Azzurri.

He won the Premier League title in his first season at Chelsea, during which they produced an impressive 13-game winning streak, then ended Inter's Scudetto wait last term, leading the Nerazzurri to a first championship since 2010. His San Siro departure amid Inter's financial cutbacks does raise questions over whether he would want to go anywhere near Camp Nou right now, particularly with Manchester United also reportedly interested.

Marcelo Gallardo

A name strongly linked with the post, Gallardo started out his coaching career with Nacional in Uruguay. However, he has been in charge of River Plate — a club he had three stints at during his playing career — since 2014, winning the Copa Libertadores twice among an impressive list of honours at Los Millonarios.

The last Argentinian coach to take the top job at Barca did not last too long: Gerardo Martino had just one season at the helm. Gallardo would have to cut short his River journey to do so, a move he suggested was not likely after revealing he plans to see out a contract that runs until the end of 2021.

Eden Hazard is "medically perfect" but there is concern about the Belgium star's injury problems, according to national team boss Roberto Martinez.

The playmaker has endured a miserable time in Spain due to persistent physical issues since his move from Chelsea in 2019 for a reported €100million (£88.5m).

Hazard has only completed four matches for Los Blancos in all competitions, scoring just five goals in 51 appearances in total, as patience over his lack of availability runs thin among fans and local media.

The 30-year-old impressed in the first half of the Nations League semi-final against France last week, as Belgium took a 2-0 lead into half-time, but he was taken off in the 74th minute as Martinez's side went on to lose 3-2 to the world champions.

Hazard sat out the 2-1 third-place play-off defeat to Italy, Martinez saying he was suffering from "muscle fatigue" but adding he did not know how long the former Lille star would need to recover.

Indeed, Martinez has found it difficult to determine why Hazard, a player he believes can still challenge for the Ballon d'Or, has endured so many injuries since his move to Spain two years ago.

"It's certainly true that Eden is not now in a physical situation to be at 100 per cent for 90 minutes," Martinez told El Larguero. "What's important now is to have patience, to work well and try to get Hazard, bit by bit, to get back to that level he's always had.

 

"His situation in Spain is very atypical. He found a situation that's new for him, because he was never injured and suddenly finds himself over the course of two years with no explanation for so many injuries.

"We're all worried and I'm sure Real Madrid are as well. He's a player who needs the ball, needs to dribble, and in order to reach his maximum physical level, he needs to play games.

"What I've seen is that he is medically perfect. The first 45 minutes [against France] were really enjoyable. We hope that, between Real Madrid and the national team, we can help him so he can get the minutes he needs. If he's at the level of those 45 minutes against France, I'm sure he'll bring a lot of success to Belgium, but especially to Real Madrid."

Martinez's future has come under scrutiny in recent weeks following reports he was a prime candidate to take over from Ronald Koeman as Barcelona head coach.

That was until Barca president Joan Laporta insisted he would give Koeman time to turn things around amid a run of just two wins in eight matches in all competitions.

Regardless, Martinez says he has not spoken to the club and has not yet decided if he will commit to the Belgium job beyond next year's World Cup in Qatar.

"It's been a difficult period because it seems like you don't want to answer, but the truth is they've not had any contact with me," he said.

"You know how rumours with coaches work. It's nothing more than an anecdote that helps me start the day with a smile.

"I still haven't decided [if I will stay after the World Cup]. Whenever I talk about my future, I don't usually clarify it.

"We're continuing a really beautiful, ambitious project and you have to think day by day. I've learned that the emotional side of a national team is on another level to what happens at a club."

Roberto Martinez retains the full support of the Royal Belgian Football Association (RBFA) but has been told lessons must be learned from Belgium's disappointing Nations League Finals campaign.

Belgium let a two-goal half-time lead slip in last week's 3-2 defeat to France in the semi-finals and followed that up with a 2-1 loss at the hands of European champions Italy in the third-place play-off on Sunday.

The Red Devils are on course to finish the year as FIFA's top-ranked national side for the fourth time running, but their 'golden generation' of players have still yet to win any silverware.

Martinez could only guide Belgium to the quarter-finals of Euro 2020, having previously finished third at the 2018 World Cup (they were also beaten by Italy and France respectively in those tournaments), but the Spaniard – who has been strongly linked with replacing Ronald Koeman at Barcelona – is not at risk of being sacked.

However, RBFA chief executive Peter Bossaert accepts that the second-half display against France cannot be repeated if Belgium are to have any chance of ending their wait for a trophy.

"Roberto is still the right man for the job," Bossaert told La Derniere Heure. "We still support him 100 per cent. But we have to learn from the game against France, in which we played our best half of football and worst half in a long time.

"I'm going to ask some people for advice, but I'm not going to create a commission or a committee. I also don't want too many people giving their opinions because then there will be too many differing opinions."

Belgium are top of their World Cup 2022 qualifying group with 16 points from six matches and return to action on November 13 with a home game against Estonia.

Martinez agrees with Bossaert that Belgium were not good enough during the Nations League Finals, even if there were some positives to take away from the mini-tournament.

"We cannot concede five goals in two games and we cannot concede two penalties, even if the decisions were not correct," he said.

"But the way we reacted to going behind against Italy, after what had happened in the France game, I thought the team had a real strong personality to keep playing."

Kevin De Bruyne insists it is not realistic for Belgium to compete with heavyweights such as France and Italy after finishing fourth in the Nations League.

The Red Devils let a two-goal lead slip to lose 3-2 to France in last week's semi-final and were beaten 2-1 by Italy in Sunday's third-place play-off.

Despite being on course to end the year as FIFA's top-ranked national side for a fourth time running, De Bruyne has called for some perspective on the back of a difficult week.

"We did well at times against some top teams and had many new faces who did more than a decent job today," he told Belgian publication HLN.

"It's good experience for them to be able to play against opponents of this calibre, but unfortunately we lost twice. 

"With all due respect, playing against Estonia is not the same thing and these challenges are necessary for us to grow, both as individuals and as a team.

"We are 'just' Belgium. It's a new generation and we were missing Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard against Italy, so we have to be realistic about the team we have. 

"Italy, France and Spain have 22 top players to choose from and we do not."

Belgium's 'Golden Generation' of players have yet to win a major trophy, most recently finishing third at the 2018 World Cup, either side of quarter-final exits at Euro 2016 and 2020.

Roberto Martinez's side are top of their World Cup 2022 qualifying group with 16 points from six matches and return to action on November 13 with a home game against Estonia.

Barcelona-linked Martinez has acknowledged that his side have to improve when they take on some of the world's bigger nations.

"We cannot concede five goals in two games and we cannot concede two penalties, even if the decisions were not correct," he said following the loss to Italy.

"But the way we reacted to going behind against Italy, after what had happened in the France game, I thought the team had a real strong personality to keep playing."

Roberto Martinez said it is "difficult for me to talk about rumours" after addressing speculation he could replace Ronald Koeman as Barcelona boss.

Martinez saw his Belgium side defeated 2-1 by Italy in Sunday's Nations League third-place play-off, having lost to the Azzurri by the same scoreline in the quarter-finals of Euro 2020.

Speaking after Sunday's game, Martinez was asked about links to Barca, with Koeman's position under threat after an indifferent start in LaLiga this season and back-to-back 3-0 defeats to Bayern Munich and Benfica in the Champions League.

"It's difficult for me to talk about rumours. I've been working with this team for five years and am fully concentrated on this role," Martinez told reporters post-match.

"We came to the Nations League to win it and did not manage that, but now we prepare for World Cup qualifying. I have nothing more to add."

Nicolo Barella's goal and a Domenico Berardi penalty were enough for Italy to defeat Belgium, for whom Charles De Ketelaere's first international goal was not enough to mount a comeback.

It marked the first time Belgium have suffered back-to-back competitive defeats since September 2010 and Martinez, whose team let a two-goal lead slip against France in the semi-final on Thursday, was left frustrated.

"The penalty was a debatable decision and one that frankly I do not agree with. I try to be respectful with the referee, but you need experience at a tournament of this level," he added.

"We are very frustrated by VAR intervening against France, saying referees ought to be given responsibility for their decisions, but why didn't the VAR intervene today when the referee needed help? The frustration grew as the game wore on."

Substitute Kevin de Bruyne, who assisted De Ketelaere's late consolation goal, was also disappointed but felt the experience has been good for some of Belgium's younger squad members.

"We did well at times against some top teams and had many new faces who did more than a decent job today," De Bruyne told Belgian outlet HNL.

"It's a good experience for them to be able to play against opponents of this calibre, but unfortunately we lost twice.

"With all due respect, playing against Estonia is not the same thing and these challenges are necessary for us to grow, both as individuals and as a team.

"We are 'just' Belgium. It's a new generation, we were missing Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard today, so we have to be realistic about the team we have.

"Italy, France and Spain have 22 top players to choose from and we do not."

Nicolo Barella and Domenico Berardi struck in the second half as Italy defeated Belgium 2-1 to claim third place at the 2021 Nations League Finals on Sunday.

Roberto Martinez's side, who let slip a two-goal lead to lose to France on Thursday, were denied twice by the woodwork either side of Barella's volley, which gave the reigning European champions the lead just a minute after the interval.

Berardi then scored from the penalty spot to add a second for Roberto Mancini's team, who had their record 37-game unbeaten run ended by Spain in Wednesday's semi-final, before Charles de Ketelaere netted a late consolation.

Italy banished any demons after their first competitive loss on home soil since 1999 while Belgium - having faltered in a Euro 2020 quarter-final against the same opponents - may now have to wait until the 2022 World Cup to inflict revenge.

Federico Chiesa blasted the first chance of the contest narrowly over from a tight angle before a deflected effort from Berardi was parried away by Thibaut Courtois.

Toby Alderweireld's near-post header then forced Gianluigi Donnarumma's first save, but the Italy goalkeeper could only stand and watch as Alexis Saelemaekers curled onto the crossbar moments later.

Barella responded by sending a speculative long-range effort over before Chiesa was excellently denied by Courtois' legs on the stroke of half-time.

Courtois, however, was no match for Barella's right-footed volley straight after the break, the midfielder finding the bottom corner to open the scoring.

Michy Batshuayi almost immediately drew Belgium level, his right-footed drive cannoning into the bar, before Timothy Castagne needlessly fouled Chiesa to concede a penalty, one Berardi converted despite Courtois getting a hand to the effort.

Yannick Carrasco struck the right-hand post and while De Ketelaere did roll through Donnarumma's legs to score, Belgium could were unable to find a late leveller.

Belgium's Nations League hopes fell flat on Thursday, but Yannick Carrasco insists the squad still have faith they can achieve glory at the 2022 World Cup.

The world's number one ranked team squandered a two-goal lead as France came back to win 3-2 in their semi-final clash in Turin, Theo Hernandez scoring the crucial fifth goal of a thrilling contest in the 90th minute.

Instead of heading to San Siro to face Spain in the final, Belgium are instead back at the Allianz Stadium on Sunday, going up against European champions Italy in a third-place play-off.

It is the second such match during Roberto Martinez's tenure, the Barcelona-linked coach having previously guided Belgium to the semi-finals of World Cup 2018, where they also fell foul of France.

Belgium defeated England to claim third place in Russia, before reaching the quarter-finals at Euro 2020. Sunday's opponents Italy beat them there.

When asked if Belgium's squad still held belief in their ability to challenge at next year's World Cup in Qatar, Atletico Madrid winger Carrasco turned the tables on the media.

"Do we believe that we can win a prize in Qatar? We always believe in ourselves," he told a news conference.

"But do you still believe in us? Because we don't have that feeling. We know that we have a good team, that we can do something beautiful.

"On Friday, the coach showed what we did well and what we did badly.

"That is necessary to prepare for Qatar. A year is not long with the national team, we will use the match against France to get better."

 

Martinez, meanwhile, said a new cycle had now started for Belgium as they look to build towards the World Cup, which arguably presents the final chance for the Red Devils' 'golden generation' to claim a trophy.

He said: "A new cycle has started, that of preparing for the World Cup.

"Over the past five years we have created a style of play. Multiple players can bring what the team needs but our style of play goes beyond individuals. 

"We have been number one in the world for three years. Of course that is important. We want to remain number one. But our main motivation is to get better. The second half against France showed we are not the finished product."

Belgium will be out for revenge against the Azzurri, aiming to at least end their Nations League campaign on a high. However, they will be without Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, who have both been withdrawn due to what Martinez described as "muscle overload".

"I cannot say," Martinez said when asked if the duo would be fit for their clubs next week. "That is a question for the medical department. But it is definitely about overload and not injury."

In the hours after the takeover of Newcastle United was confirmed, Steve Bruce admitted he would not be surprised to lose his job.

The former Manchester United defender has rarely been too popular in his two years at St James' Park, and with Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) and their astonishing financial might now in control of things, fans are expecting a more high-profile candidate to lead the first team.

While Bruce is expected to have talks with the new owners next week, there are suggestions he could leave his role before the home game with Tottenham on October 17.

Who might be chosen to lead the Magpies into their new era of promise? Stats Perform looks at some of the favourites.

 

Antonio Conte

Having left Inter at the end of last season, Conte represents an ideal choice for Newcastle: an elite coach with Premier League experience who is presently a free agent.

Conte won the 2016-17 Premier League title with Chelsea and the FA Cup the following year. He won 50 of his first 73 games in charge in England's top flight, a record bettered only by Jose Mourinho (50 wins in 63) and Pep Guardiola (50 wins in 69) at the time.

The Italian then ended Inter's decade-long wait for the Scudetto before walking out before this season, highlighting the risk that comes with appointing such a volatile coach. Still, back his demands in the transfer market and it will usually pay dividends in the short term. If Newcastle's owners are after a statement of intent, there are not too many better candidates.

 

Brendan Rodgers

Rodgers was tipped for the Tottenham job when Mourinho left but was apparently committed to Leicester City. However, recent reports have suggested he could be tempted by the project now developing at Newcastle.

The former Liverpool boss has done extremely well with Leicester, with back-to-back fifth-place finishes in the league and a brilliant FA Cup triumph last term, but he has perhaps taken the Foxes as far as he realistically can. Indeed, while fifth place cannot be snubbed at, Leicester held a spot in the top four for the majority of the previous two seasons, while they have had an indifferent start to this term.

Rodgers would also offer Newcastle fans the kind of attractive football they will be craving for the new era.

Steven Gerrard

According to reports, Gerrard is keeping a close eye on developments at St James' Park and would be a welcome choice among supporters given his pedigree as a Premier League player.

Last season, the ex-Liverpool captain led Rangers to the Scottish title without losing a single game, and they are on course to defend that crown after a promising start to 2021-22.

Gerrard would be more of a gamble than some of the more experienced candidates, but he has arguably earned the opportunity.

 

Roberto Martinez

Barcelona were said to be trying to work out how they could afford to replace Ronald Koeman with Martinez last month, although the former is keeping his job for now.

After watching Belgium give up a 2-0 lead to lose to France in the Nations League semi-finals, a deeply frustrated Martinez accused his side of throwing away five years of work, adding fuel to rumours that he feels his time with the Red Devils is coming to an end.

Martinez sprung a shock by winning the FA Cup with Wigan Athletic in 2013, although his commitment to attacking football could not keep them in the division and his Everton spell ended in disappointment after an initially bright start. But he said only this week to Goal that his ideal next job was a long-term project and that it "doesn't matter where it might be in the world".

Eddie Howe

Despite being considered for the Celtic job, Howe surprisingly remains unattached since leaving Bournemouth, the club he helped to lead from England's fourth tier to the Premier League.

Like Martinez, Howe won praise for the attractive football he was able to coax out of relatively unheralded players, although he too could not quite master the balance between positive play and defensive discipline, with Bournemouth relegated in 2019-20.

There was also criticism of Bournemouth's transfer spending during Howe's time in the Premier League: Dominic Solanke, signed for roughly £19m from Liverpool in 2019, only scored three times in 42 appearances in the top flight (although his Championship form since has been much improved).

 

Rafael Benitez

The return of Benitez would undoubtedly be welcomed by Newcastle fans, who generally hold him in high esteem following his three years at the club before his move to China.

Despite failing to save them from relegation in 2016-17, the Spaniard was considered a top-drawer coach who was hamstrung by the ownership of Mike Ashley and a lack of significant investment in the squad. After winning the Championship in 2017, Newcastle finished 10th in their first season back in the top flight but only 13th in the following two campaigns.

Prising him away from Everton would be neither easy nor cheap, but his experience of winning big trophies and his relationship with the supporters would arguably make him the most popular choice as manager.

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