Belgium and Italy get set to battle it out in one of the biggest clashes so far in the tournament, as both look to establish their supremacy and set the tone for Group E.
In the biggest group stage clash since the start of the tournament, Belgium and Italy go head to head as they begin their quest for European supremacy. Incoming Chelsea manager Antonio Conte will come up against his future colleagues in the form of Hazard and Thibaut Courtois and it will be interesting to see how they perform against their future manager.
The last time these sides met was in a friendly in November, where Belgium emerged the victors with a 3-1 scoreline. Both sides are missing key names since that day but are sure to bring their A-game given the circumstances. This is Belgium’s most talented side ever and arguably Italy’s weakest ever tournament side in this century, and that is testament to the great history of Italian football. The Azzuri will look to put the disappointment of the World Cup behind them with a good tournament run and give their fans something to hope for once again, with a win over this fiercely talented and hungry Belgium side.
Team News & Tactics
Belgium have one of the most talented squads of the tournament, but Marc Wilmots will still feel the pressure of not having two of his first choice centre-backs for the the tournament. Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany and Nicholas Lombaerts were ruled out of the tournament and apart from the selection headache, Belgium also lose a bit of that leadership and seniority that the two defenders bring to the side. Hence, Belgium’s squad was reduced to ‘álmost perfect’. Liverpool target Tomas Vermaelen was declared fit to play today but Chelsea’s Eden Hazard suffered an injury in training and was forced to limp off, according to Sky Sports. But Marc Wilmots has said that it was just a minor knock and didn’t think it was too serious.
Wilmots is expected to set his team up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Courtois taking over between the posts. Zenit’s Axel Witsel and Chelsea target Radja Nainggolan will be playing in front of the back four and the duo will be tasked with helping their team transition from defence to attack, retaining possession and distributing it to the likes of Hazard and De Bruyne. Since the Italian attack is likely to come from the wings, they will also be assisting their fullbacks in trying to slow down the likes of Candreva, and Insigne.
The Belgian defence is the achilles heel of the side. With Kompany and Lombaerts injured, it is yet to be seen whether Wilmots will pair up the extremely successful Tottenham centre-back partnership of Alderweireld and Vertonghen, or call on Barcelona’s Thomas Vermaelen and Manchester City youngster Jason Denayer. Logic would entail that the players be played in their natural positions, but it is likely that Wilmots will decide his defence according to the opposition.
Moving further up the pitch, the trio of Hazard, De Bruyne and Mertens will be tasked with scoring or creating the goals for the side. Their attacking lineup is certainly one of, if not THE, best in the tournament. Captain Eden Hazard has hit his good form at just the right time and Manchester City superstar Kevin De Bruyne is coming off a season in which he established himself as one of the best play makers in the world. Diers Mertens is also coming off a good season with Napoli where he got 11 goals in 37 appearances, even after spending a lot of time on the bench. De Bruyne will be targeted by Motta and De Rossi and they will try to slow him down and reduce his influence in the game. Hazard and Mertens will have much more responsibilities that just putting in crosses, as they will come up against Florenzi and Darmian, and their pressure will be key to not allowing the Italian wing backs to advance forward.
The main man up front will be Chelsea, Bayern and Man Utd target Romelu Lukaku. He’s had a superb individual spell in England with Everton, constantly improved season after season and he will be tasked with scoring the goals that will take Belgium forward. His hold up play and physical presence will be key to the Belgian attack. He will be coming up against the likes of Barzagli and Chiellini, and it will be interesting to see how the youngster fares.
In the form of Chelsea target Michy Batshuayi, Liverpool’s Christian Benteke, United’s Fellaini, Barcelona’s Tomas Vermaelen and Atletico Madrid’s Yannick Carrasco, Wilmots has a wealth of of talent to pick from to replace almost anyone in his attack and defence.
Predicted Starting XI(4-2-3-1): Thibaut Courtois; J Lukaku, Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Muenier; Witsel, Nainggloan; Hazard(c), De Bruyne; Mertens; Lukaku
Antonio Conte will have a full strength squad at his disposal going into this. Well, at least full strength with regard to the squad he took to the Euros. His squad selection raised quite a few eyebrows with notable names such as Jorginho, Bonaventura, Romagnoli and Luca Antonelli all missing out, amongst others. However, the future Chelsea manager will hope that his men will vindicate his selection with a victory against their opponents, who are tournament favourites.
The Italians are expected to line up in a 3-4-3 formation which can also switch to a 3-5-2 with Candreva dropping deep occasionally to assist with attacking in the middle of the park. The Legendary keeper Gianluigi Buffon will lead his beloved Azzurri out in what is expected to be his final international tournament. There will be a 3 man defence comprising of Juventus heroes Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini.
Fullbacks Matteo Darmian and Alessandro Florenzi will be deployed as wingbacks beside De Rossi and Thiago Motta. Motta and De Rossi will likely be focusing on keeping Kevin De Bruyne as quiet as possible throughout the game.
The Italian squad will be without a designated deep-lying playmaker and so Italy’s focus of attack will be down the flanks. Florenzi and Darmian will support Insgine and Antonio Candreva on their respective wings as they look to put in crosses for Graziano Pelle to finish. The added pressure from the wingers and the wingbacks should also subdue the likes of Mertens and Hazard and reduce their impact in the game.
Predicted Starting XI (3-4-3): Buffon(c); Chiellini, Barzagli, Bonucci; Darmian, Motta, De Rossi, Florenzi; Candreva, Pelle, Insigne
Player To Watch
Things couldn’t possibly have gotten any worse for the Belgian captain this season and after hitting rock-bottom, he seems to be slowly getting back to his best much to the relief of his countrymen. He found his form again towards the end of the Premier League season after a return on the sidelines and things have been on the up for the 25-year-old. His pace, trickery and skill will be key to Belgium’s hope tonight and also for the rest of the tournament. It will be interesting to see whether Hazard has the character and attitude to lead his nation into a tournament where they are title favourites.
Belgium 2-1 Italy
Their last meeting was a friendly in November 2015, which ended with a 3-1 win for Belgium. But this time both teams will definitely step it up a notch given the stage. There’s much more at stake here, but it’s expected to be a hard fought victory for the Belgians. Italy’s depleted forward line will come up against an injury struck Belgian defence and the battle of both sides’ weaknesses will be crucial in determining how the match turns out. Belgium will come up against arguably one of the best defenses in the tournament in the form of Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini, but with the attacking talent at their disposal, they should manage to breach the Italian defence at least once in the game.
Blast from the past
It was a scoreline that did not give a fair reflection of the match. The Azzurri were the more threatening side throughout the course of the game, but the fact that they didn’t didn’t take their chances as opposed to Wilmots’ clinical Belgian side, proved costly for Conte’s men.