Rival golden generations of Wales, Belgium bid for gloryArchive
LILLE: History awaits the victors as Wales talisman Gareth Bale and rejuvenated Belgium star Eden Hazard lead their respective golden generations into battle in Friday’s Euro 2016 quarter-final.
Belgium, who finally came together as a team to demolish Hungary 4-0 in their last-16 match, are desperate to make good on their squad’s vast potential and reach a first major semi-final since the 1986 World Cup.
Wales could also claim to have developed a golden generation, spearheaded by Bale, even if they have fewer illustrious players than the side ranked number two in the world.
They are riding high in their first major tournament in 58 years since the 1958 World Cup, and having outlasted British rivals England and Northern Ireland, their confidence is at an all-time high.
Both sides, though, are fully aware that Wales have proved their mettle against Belgium, beating them 1-0 in Cardiff and drawing in Brussels in the tournament’s qualifying stage.
“We’re good normally in that situation when we’re right up against it,” Wales defender Chris Gunter said. “Belgium will be the fancied team and they are right on their own doorstep but it’s something we can use as an advantage.”
With the game taking place in the northern French city of Lille, which is just 10 kilometres or so from the Belgian border, Belgium won’t be lacking for support.
Fans of the team have already turned up in droves in the city for Euro 2016 games in Lille, and nearby Lens.
Local fans should also swell their ranks both in and out of the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.
All eyes will be on the form of Bale and Hazard.
Bale, the world’s most expensive player, has scored three goals and fired in the cross that led to Northern Ireland’s own goal in Wales’ 1-0 last-16 victory.
His ability to seize the moment, not least at free kicks, could be pivotal.
“We have the players to stop Bale,” said Belgium defender Toby Alderweireld. “We can’t have silly concentration lapses when we have the ball.
“Since the start, our objective has been to win the tournament. But it’s important to go into each match in the right way.”
Hazard came to life against Hungary — as did the whole team after a stuttering start to the campaign. He set up the second goal for Michy Batshuayi and scored with a dashing solo effort two minutes later to crush Hungary’s hopes in what he said was his best-ever game for his country.
The Belgium captain has missed two days of training with a thigh injury, but should he be declared fit to play, he will be returning to the city where he made a name for himself.
PRESSURE ON WILMOTS
With average squad ages of 26.9 and 26 respectively, Wales and Belgium convene at a time when both groups of players are arriving at maturity.
Belgium’s star-studded line-up makes them favourites, but Wales coach Chris Coleman believes the expectation that has clung to their players in recent years could give his side an advantage.
“Going into the tournament, the pressure is on Marc [Wilmots], because of the team and the quality,” said the Wales manager.
“They have to at least get to the semi-final, the final or even win it. That comes with its own pressures.
“They have players on the pitch and the bench that would grace any international team. But in the last four years we’ve had four meetings and won one and drawn two, so there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
One concern for Wales has centred on captain Ashley Williams, who injured his shoulder against Northern Ireland. However, he’s expected to be fit to start.
Wilmots has his own worries too.
Already missing injured defender Vincent Kompany for the tournament, the Belgium coach will now have to replace suspended centre-back Thomas Vermaelen as well.
And two days after leading Belgium in their rout of Hungary, Hazard skipped Tuesday’s training with a muscle problem, but Wilmots said the winger “will be 100 percent, no problem” for Friday’s game.
“Wales are a very strong side, and not just with Gareth Bale; they have other good players,” cautioned Wilmots.
Hazard and Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne were instrumental in Belgium’s return to form following an opening 2-0 defeat to Italy. Since then, Belgium has beaten Ireland, Sweden and Hungary with an aggregate score of 8-0.
The ambition is high.
“We are only nine days away from the final,” De Bruyne said. “Now we want to stay until the end.”
Published in Dawn, July 1st, 2016