On paper De Rode Duivels have one of the strongest squads at Euro 2016 and are preparing for a titanic battle with four-time World Cup winners Italy.
Italy have been vastly written off in the build up to this tournament but as a country who are real tournament specialists it would be particularly unwise to underestimate the Azzurri.
Belgium now seem to have outgrown their ‘dark horse’ tag and are simply being considered among the tournament favorites. A sturdy center-back pairing gives the Red Devils a strong base while their wealth of attacking options means they are not to be messed with.
Marc Wilmots favours a 4-2-3-1 set-up, with Axel Witsel sitting in front of the back four and Nainggolan in a more wide-ranging box-to-box role. That leaves Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and, perhaps, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, to work behind a lone striker, probably Romelu Lukaku.
Several of the squad have hardly figured for their clubs this season. Marouane Fellaini, Dries Mertens, and Christian Benteke are key squad members but have had little playing time. Jan Vertonghen and Kevin De Bruyne had time out with injuries last season but recovered in time for Euro 2016. Defensive stalwart Vincent Kompany will miss the whole tournament.
Antonio Conte’s Italy are set to deploy the BBC defensive wall of Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini with wing backs in a 5-3-2. After Pirlo’s exclusion and injuries to both Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti, PSG’s Thiago Motta is the only option to anchor the midfield.
In attack there is a choice between Pelle, Eder, Zaza, Insigne and Immobile. None of which set the world on fire in terms of goals in the 2015/2016 season but it is likely that Pele and Zaza will be given the nod.
Italian football has been in a steady decline over the last half a decade. This has been seen in the performances of the national team at major tournaments where they have crashed out in the groups stages at the last two World Cups.
After raising some eyebrows by overlooking MLS star Andrea Pirlo and US league MVP Giovinco, Antonio Conte says he is assured over his choices and is looking for improvement on the pitch in France.
“In terms of my squad choices, there is nothing to clarify. I chose 23 players who all have my utmost trust. I know what they can give me and there’s nothing else to say on that matter,” Conte said.
“We are only focused on ourselves and concentrating on improving as a group, in our principles and our philosophy.
“It is all about remaining concentrated and getting the most out of ourselves that we can. We will keep our heads down and move forward.”
Doubts have continued to grow over Belgium in their three warm-up games. After winning 2-1 against Switzerland they huffed and puffed to salvage a draw against Finland where Lukaku’s 89th minute equalizer saved the team some face. In the following game they trailed Norway 2-1 before recovering in the last 20 minutes to win 3-2.
As he bemoaned a tough draw at Euro 2016, critics are beginning to ask whether Marc Wilmots is the right man for the job. “It could have been better, but also worse,” the former Belgium international said as he acknowledged the difficulty of Group E in an interview with Marca.
“The most difficult thing will be to finish at the top of that group. Antonio Conte is not happy with this group, and neither am I. It went how it went though, and I’m not someone who complains. We’re one of the five or six teams who are candidates for the overall win, but we’re not favorites so we have to be realistic.
“There’s Spain, Germany, Italy, France and a few surprises. I think Spain and France are a cut above the others though. I’m keeping my feet firmly on the ground, I know we can beat any opponent, but to do that we have to be united.”
Italy have beaten Belgium 14 times out of 22 meetings. Belgium meanwhile have only managed four wins against the Italians.
The teams last met in November 2015 in Brussels where the home side ran out 3-1 victors in an entertaining match. Anotnio Conte’s men showed promise and vigor but it was ultimately the individual talent of Marc Wilmots’ men which guided them to the win as De Bruyne and Batshuayi scored late.
The sides have met at the European Championships group stages before. When Belgium hosted the tournament in 2000 they were handed a 2-0 defeat in the capital from an Italian side managed by Dino Zoff as Totti opened the scoring. When the nations met in the 1980 European Championships the pair played out a dull 0-0- stalemate.
Belgium topped their group ahead of surprise package Wales in qualification and secure their spot in France with a 4-1 over Andorra in the penultimate game. A 0-0 stalemate at home to Wales followed by a 1-0 loss in Cardiff.
Italy topped their qualifying group to emerge victorious in a tricky pool containing the likes of Croatia, Norway and Bulgaria. They were short of goals as Southampton target man Graziano Pelle top scored with 3. They finished undefeated with 7 wins and 3 draws.
In preparation for the tournament Antonio Conte’s men won both their warm-up games with clean sheets as they beat Scotland 1-0 and Finland 2-0. Goals from Candreva and De Rossi put Finland to the sword while one from Pelle against Scotland gave the team the perfect starting point for Euro 2016.
Belgium: Courtois; Vermaelen, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Ciman; Nainggolan, Witsel; De Bruyne, Fellaini, Hazard; Lukaku.
Italy: Buffon; De Sciglio, Barzagli. Bonucci, Chiellini, Florenzi; Motta, De Rossi, Candreva; Pellé, Zaza.
Belgium 0 – 0 Italy – 6/1
Belgium 2 – 0 Italy – 9/1
Belgium 0 – 1 Italy – 6/1
Italy win to nil – 7/4
Belgium win by exactly 2 goals – 7/1