Euro 2016 preview: Belgium vs. Italy
It’s a fixture that, on face value alone, promises to be a cracker. The Azzurri open their Euro 2016 campaign against Belgium.
The Stade de Lyon will host arguably the most anticipated of the opening fixtures in the European Championship finals; a match that could be a vital confidence boost for either Italy or Belgium should they be victorious. Having come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, the Belgian national team has worked its way into a position of contenders in the tournament; thanks largely to the presence of one or two superstars in all areas of the pitch. The Azzurri on the other hands have never looked entirely convincing and seem unsure of themselves and their tactics. Gone are the days of intensive defending and flamboyant goalscoring. Now fans see a team lacking in identity but still tough enough to overcome the likes of Belgium on prestige alone.
While the encounter is certainly a big test of the credentials of Belgium, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. A defeat to the Italians wouldn’t spell doom to their hopes of progressing, and could even be productive in preparing them for their other games in Group E. From a closer perspective, the Belgian side has developed in an area that could finally see them land a trophy: the back line. The defensive pairing of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld has been impressive to say the least for club side Tottenham Hotspur; a partnership they are likely to continue for their country in the absence of Vincent Kompany.
Elsewhere there are more familiar names to Serie A fans. The Roma midfield enforcer Radja Nainggolan and Napoli star Dries Mertens make up part of the core of the Belgium squad, both bringing experience not only in the broad sense but also of their opponents. While the goalkeeping position is likely to be locked down by Thibaut Courtois, the squad also includes former Torino, Bologna and most prominently Bari goalkeeper Jean-Francois Gillet. The 37-year-old spent most of his career on the peninsula, playing in both Serie B and Serie A in a time frame spanning sixteen years. Now in the twilight of his career his inclusion in the squad could realistically be his last.
The last meeting between these two great footballing nations came at the turn of the century, coincidently in the 2000 European Championship. Remarkably the match took place just a day before the scheduled meeting for this instalment of the tournament, the final score reflecting a very different Italian side in a 2-0 win; thanks to goals from Francesco Totti and Stefano Fiore.
Unfortunately, not all affiliation between the two nations has been positive. In the 1985 European Cup final, contested by Juventus and Liverpool, a tragic scene unfolded at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels. A collapsing wall killed 39 people, most of whom were Italian supporters. Commemorations and ceremonies have taken place ever since, the most recent in November last year.
Nevertheless there are still positives to be found from a long and mutual relationship between these two nations. Belgium greats, such as former Parma man Georges Grün, Torino and Inter midfielder Enzo Scifo and ex-Milan defender Eric Gerets have all graced Italian soil. Stefano Okaka, once a promising youngster with Roma and most recently with Sampdoria, now plys his trade with Anderlecht. There is also a whole host of players who have made the switch from the Belgian Pro League, notably Lazio midfielder Luca Biglia, Roma defender Ervin Zukanovic and Napoli man Omar El Kaddouri to name a few.
Both sides will be geared toward progressing past the group stage but are also far from favourites to win the tournament. For Antonio Conte and his men this could play into their hands as less of an expectation should relieve pressure, allowing the Italians to play to their full potential. Belgium are perhaps experiencing the opposite. After years of being the dark horse in tournaments the Red Devils have not been able to build on this platform, so often lacking the experience of other footballing nations having reached the latter stages.
This opening game presents an excellent opportunity for Conte to evaluate where his side is at. The defence will need to be at its very best to silence one of the finest attacking sides in the competition, win the physical battle in midfield and unlock a sturdy Belgian back line.