Belgium will face Ireland on Saturday determined to debunk talk of them becoming the underachievers of Euro 2016.
An unfancied Italy side were hardly extended by the highest European nation within Fifa world’s rankings during Monday’s Group E fixture, with Kevin De Bruyne saying his Belgian side could have no complaints about the 2-0 defeat.
If the result wasn’t bad enough, then post-match comments by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois citing their tactical inferiority cast further doubts on the relationship between coach Marc Wilmots and his galaxy of star players.
Talk of discord within the camp was also fuelled from an angry reaction by Chelsea target Radja Nainggolan to being substituted.
Last night, the coach and his veteran centre-back Thomas Vermaelen were eager to talk up the unity of the Belgian project, the latter adamant that six points would be extracted from the two remaining games against Ireland and Sweden.
Whether captain Eden Hazard or De Bruyne feature on Saturday in Bordeaux is unclear as the Premier League duo picked up hip and hamstring injuries in Lyon and won’t train for the next couple of days.
“The players and the coach are on the same wavelength tactically,” said Vermaelen, whose two-year stint at Barcelona has been punctuated with injury problems.
“It wasn’t easy against Italy as it is difficult to defend against players who dive around. Everybody was sad and disappointed at how the game went and the fans weren’t happy either at full-time.
“Now, we have to think positive. It is obvious that pressure is on our shoulders and we cannot make mistakes.
“I’m convinced we will take six points from our last two games and qualify for the knockout stages. Ireland will be a different game to Italy, they are difficult to play against and have fine character. But we will impose our game on them,” he said.
As Sweden and Zlatan Ibrahimovic discovered on Monday, Ireland possess bundles of the battling qualities Belgium appear to be lacking.
Wilmots highlights this area as critical for improvement if defeats like the one against the resolute Italians are to be avoided.
“We have a good group of players but I need more aggressiveness from them,” said the coach. “Although our team is young and have quality, results don’t just happen.”
In the face of his authority seemingly being undermined, the supremo was having none of it. “Those flash interviews straight after the game are never good. Thibaut was frustrated after conceding goals. He spoke about tactics but there isn’t much tactics when facing a team with 10 men behind the ball,” he said.
“Radja (Nainggolan) came to me to say images at his substitution were misinterpreted. He told me that he never gets hurt after a substitution which is for the good of the team.”
Other familiar names are poised to start against Ireland, be it enforced or by choice, as Mousa Dembele and Divock Origi are pushing for inclusion. Another one of Belgium’s Premier League stable, Christian Benteke, may also be summoned should Wilmots opt for a more direct formation with two strikers.
Meanwhile, Martin Olsson says his Swedish side must display the drive of Ireland to give themselves the best hope of remaining in France beyond the group stage.
Ireland’s stellar first-half showing at the Stade de France left the Swedes stunned and the only surprise was that the opener took until three minutes after the restart to come.
Despite them pinching a point through Ciaran Clark’s own-goal, Sweden realise they will be shown little mercy by the Italians, whom they meet on Friday in Toulouse.
“Sometimes you just don’t get it to work right away,” said the Norwich City full-back.
“Credit to Ireland on Monday, they really showed up and we didn’t really react properly in the beginning. We need to keep the ball better.
Olsson had spoken in the build-up to the group opener of Wes Hoolahan’s potential to be Ireland’s creative spark. The 28-year-old’s advice still couldn’t prevent his Norwich teammate delivering a goal- scoring and man-of-the-match display.
“I wasn’t surprised by how good Wes played against us because I see his talents every day at my club,” he said.
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