Before the match, people had looked at the Belgium team and salivated over names such as Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, and Romelu Lukaku and compared them with the Italy line-up, which in most people’s eyes — including many Italians — had no equivalent players.
The Italian team was said to be the worst that the country had sent to a major tournament in decades. When Antonio Conte declared that he would be training in Montpellier ahead of the Belgium game rather than in Lyon, reputedly because he feared spies, he was universally mocked.
However, Conte had the last laugh as his team looked relaxed, took everything that Belgium could throw at them and hit them on the break.
Although Belgium had far more attempts on goal, they were generally long-range efforts carrying no danger and only two shots were on target.
For many people, the match with Italy was just another where the Red Devils failed to live up to the propaganda. They qualified in a poor group, losing to Wales, and have never looked like a team that could challenge for the 2016 European Championships.
Much-travelled coach turned pundit Emilio Ferrera argued that one problem was that the team largely consisted of players from the Premier League, which, in his opinion, was hardly the best in Europe. He argued that the players were over-hyped and could not live up to expectations when faced by top-class opposition.
Most of the criticism has been aimed at coach Marc Wilmots. This is nothing new. Wilmots has been in charge since 2012 and despite his team climbing the Fifa rakings — reaching number 1 in 2015 — he has frequently been accused of lacking sufficient tactical nous. Tony Cascarino recently spoke to the Belgian newspaper La Dernière Heure and was unequivocal, saying that Belgium’s biggest problem was Wilmots.
Following the match with Italy, criticism of the coach came from a new direction: The players themselves. Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois openly stated that Belgium were tactically outsmarted by Italy, while Marseille striker Michy Batshuayi said he was surprised Wilmots had sent on Divock Origi to replace Romelu Lukaku rather than him or Christian Benteke.
Wilmots preferred to put the blame on some of his players, namely Toby Alderweireld, for Italy’s first goal, and Lukaku, for missing several chances. This has led Het Laatste Nieuws pundit Marc Degryse, once of Sheffield Wednesday, to talk of a potential split in the Belgium camp, with some players backing Wilmots and others not.
Wilmots is badly missing Vincent Kompany. The captain was not fit enough to be included in the squad — undoubtedly his own decision — and that has led to a leadership vacuum on and off the field. Eden Hazard has been named captain but has no experience in the job; he told the media he would lead the team by example when he had the ball.
Most observers thought Jan Vertonghen should have been given the armband — he captained Ajax when he was 21 — and he was apparently not happy at Wilmots’ decision. Then, at Thursday’s press conference, Spurs duo Alderweireld and Vertonghen were wheeled out to give the party line; that there was harmony in the group and that everyone was behind the coach.
As for today’s game in Bordeaux, despite the problems in the camp and the poor displays in the past, Belgium will start favourites. It would be difficult to argue otherwise when you have a squad that has cost £319m to assemble — the most expensive at the Euros — playing against one where Southampton’s Shane Long is the biggest name.
Wilmots has said he wants to see more fluid football and everyone playing as if their lives depended on the result. Certainly a defeat against Ireland could mark the end of his time in the job. So far, his confidence has not been dented.
For Ireland, there will be changes. The defence will be largely unaffected with just the possibility that Club Brugge’s Thomas Meunier replaces Laurent Ciman at right back. Meunier is a striker-turned-defender who would be useful in bringing more of a threat on the right than the more defensive-minded Ciman.
In midfield, Wilmots will play with a creative player in an advanced central midfield role as opposed to Marouane Fellaini who was there against Italy. Fellaini is likely to stay in the team though, in a more withdrawn role, to the detriment of Roma’s Radja Nainggolan. Axel Witsel is a certainty to stay with his responsibility of protecting the back four.
Either Hazard or De Bruyne will be in the number 10 role. With Wilmots saying De Bruyne is carrying a knock, it looks like Hazard has the edge. The two have never played effectively together and if Hazard is selected, it could mean De Bruyne on the bench. Wilmots would then bring in Atletico’s Yannick Carrasco and Napoli’s Dries Mertens on the flanks.
Up front there is a remarkable statistic. None of the four strikers — Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke, Divock Origi, and Michy Batshuayi — have scored for Belgium in a competitive match since March 2015. Lukaku is unlikely to start against Ireland and Wilmots will choose between the experienced Liverpool centre forward Benteke or the more mobile and creative Batshuayi.
Will they score? Well that’s anyone’s guess. Will Belgium win? If they don’t, Wilmots will need protection.
Courtois; Meunier, Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Witsel, Fellaini, Hazard; Carrasco, Benteke, Mertens.