The much-maligned FIFA rankings may try to tell you that Portugal and Austria will be the biggest match (8th vs 10th) in the group stages but few could doubt that Belgium vs Italy is a game between two teams with far more pedigree. The 1980 runners-up take on the three times finalists and 1968 champions. Italy will be desperate to atone for last year’s final, a 4-0 thumping at the hands of Spain, the biggest ever defeat in the final of the European Championships. Things may not be so straightforward in this group of death but the winners of this match will surely go a long way to winning this group.
Belgium are a team with the considerable weight of expectation on their shoulders, perhaps due to the array of Premier League stars they have in their ranks. The pressure looked to be affecting them in qualifying as they only took one point off Wales in qualifying and just pipped them to top spot in the group at the very end despite sitting top of FIFA’s rankings. They have won three out of their last five friendlies but worryingly they haven’t kept a clean sheet in their last 7 matches in all competitions. They are a team that looks weak in defence especially since the notable withdrawals from their squad have been in this position: Dedryk Boyata, Nicolas Lombaerts and most importantly Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany will all miss the tournament through injury. Meanwhile, Thibaut Courtois has not been in great form for Chelsea this season and was recently dropped in favour of Asmir Begovic by Guus Hiddink.
Italy too will be missing some key names, new Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has chosen to omit Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco while injury has prevented Marco Verratti, Claudio Marchisio and Riccardo Montolivo from joining up with the squad, this leaves Italy somewhat light in midfield as they have had to call on the inexperienced Stefano Sturaro and Federico Bernardeschi as replacements. Antonio Conte has used such injuries to play down expectations, in a recent BBC Sport interview, he stated “unity will have to compensate for a lack of talent” and “it isn’t a good moment for our football.” This may just be an attempt to play down expectations as Italy looked good in qualifying, going through the campaign unbeaten.
Belgium: Courtois, Alderweireld, Denayer, Vermaelen, Vertonghen, Nainggolan, Witsel, Mertens, De Bruyne, Hazard, Lukaku
Belgium look likely to deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation with Romelu Lukaku the lone front man supported in behind by Kevin De Bruyne with Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens on the wings. Kevin De Bruyne will be key for Belgium, he showed excellent form for Manchester City, even after returning from a 10-week layoff with a knee injury, scoring 16 goals and making 12 assists in 35 matches for the club. Toby Alderweireld will also play an important role, captain and leader Vincent Kompany has been ruled out so the responsibility rests on Alderweireld’s shoulders. He has had a magnificent season for Tottenham, in just his first season he was part of the Premier League’s best defence and was voted into the PFA Team of the Year, Europa League squad of the season and Tottenham’s Player of the Year. If he plays as he has been Kompany’s absence won’t be felt nearly as much.
Italy: Buffon,Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini, Candreva, Florenzi, De Rossi, Giaccherini, Darmian, Pellé, Éder
Italy tend to use Conte’s favoured and most successful formation at Juventus, 3-5-2. Italy’s strength is undoubtedly in defence and this formation suits them as it always them to play the all Juventus backline of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. Giorgio Chiellini will be of particular importance, he is an Italian and Juventus stalwart, he has over 300 appearances for club and 84 appearances for country, he is vastly experienced and is one of the best defenders on show at the tournament. He has helped Italy make the seamless transition to life without Fabio Cannavaro, one of the world’s greatest defenders. With Italy’s attack looking weak in comparison, Italy are going to rely a lot on their defence and Chiellini. When they do get the ball forward they will be looking to Antonio Candreva, the Lazio winger is known for his all-around game, he has pace, strength, versatility and a real eye for a pass, add to this his defensive work rate and Italy have a complete player and one they will rely on to beat the Belgian defence and push Italy on to a positive result.
With the players available to them I can only see Italy playing one way in this, they will look to soak up pressure and try to hit Belgium on the counter with the pace of Florenzi and Candreva. Their defence will have to work overtime to deal with all of Belgium’s attacking players though and I think that extra cutting edge will help Belgium to a win. I believe that Belgium will win this game, just as they did when the two sides met in a friendly in November 2015 (3-1). I can see a similar score this time around, I predict Belgium will win 2-1.
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Belgium vs Italy, Live on BBC 1, coverage starts from 7:35pm, Kick-off at 8:00pm GMT at the Stade de Lyon