With the weight of the nation resting on Belgium tomorrow, defender Toby Alderweireld really could do without the sight of Shane Long lurking on his shoulder.
The Spurs defender’s uncharacteristic blunder contributed to Italy’s opener in their 2-0 win over the Belgians on Monday and he’s well aware from his Premier League experience that Long is capable of inflicting further embarrassment on him.
Only five weeks ago, the Tipperary man gave Alderweireld and compatriot Jan Vertonghen the runaround at White Hart Lane as Southampton mothballed their prospects of Spurs towards usurping Leicester City for the title on the run-in Belgium’s 0defensive frailties were exposed by Italy and Alderweireld is already prepared for what Ireland and Long have in mind for the nations’ second game of Euro 2016 Group E.
“Shane Long is fast and strong, with the Irish system ideal for a player like him,” said the 27-year-old. “We know that Ireland will play with the long ball up Long, so we will have to arm ourselves physically. I can tell it will be difficult for us but we need to win this match. We are favourites because all our players are at top clubs. It is a case of making make that count. I know the mistake against Italy was mine but I wasn’t the only one who could have done better. There was a miscommunication, which happens sometimes. We cannot allow it get in the way of our objective of beating Ireland.”
Belgium, in particular their coach Marc Wilmots, have shipped plenty of flak since their surprise defeat to the Azzurri. Instead of allowing a pressure cooker syndrome to arise, Wilmots drew breath by offering the players a full day off once tomorrow’s game is done with.
“That feels like a gift to us from the coach,” admitted Alderweireld. “It is an extra day to see our family which is something to look forward to.”
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Belgium’s tag as one of the tournament favourites will be bolstered by the return of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, both of whom were back on the training pitch yesterday for the first time since suffering injuries against the Italians.
Nothing less than three points will suffice if Belgium are to shake off the question marks revolving around their team unity. Talented as they may be individually, they were ruthlessly decimated by Italy, giving Ireland plenty of optimism for making their mark on the tournament in Bordeaux.
“I understand that there is so much negativity after loss because people are not accustomed to us losing,” reasoned Alderweireld.
“I can certainly say we felt as disappointed about the result as the fans. We are very serious about the European Championships, a massive event, and we believe our quality will deliver over the next two games.”
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