Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard have denied rumours of a major rift in the Belgium squad despite a frank exchange 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 had said after the team's defeat to Morocco: “Our defenders are not the fastest and they know that.” At an ensuing team meeting, the former Tottenham defender was then said to have asked Hazard “you think I'm too slow?” Sources claimed Hazard, the ex Chelsea forward, then replied: “Yes, it's true. But I am old too.”
However, in a press conference at their training base at a Hilton hotel an hour out of Doha, Courtois and Hazard laughed off suggestions of a major bust up. “Nothing happened after the game against Morocco,” Hazard added. “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).”
About the remarks about the defenders being slow, Hazard explained: “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 later added: “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 but this brings everyone closer together.” He later added: “The problem is there's too many lies these days with social media.”
Belgium play Croatia in a must-win fixture after being shocked by Morocco 2-0 at the Al Thumama Stadium. However, they will be without Amadou Onana who received a yellow card in the 28th minute, which was his second of the tournament.
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.”
The bit-part Real Madrid player refused to say whether the match against Croatia could be his last at international level, adding: “I will not approach this match by saying that it is my last because, in my head, we will still go far.”
Courtois added: “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.”
Roberto Martinez, the national team manager, has also denied suggestions his squad have 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. We’ve been together for six years now and comments won’t help us to win. Maybe it was a double-bluff. It’s what happens behind the scenes that matters.”