Euro 2016 ‘favourites’ Belgium face Italian test

Italy Belgium Euro

Italy Belgium Euro

The highly rated “Red Devils” of Belgium take on Italy at the brand-new Stade de Lyon on Monday, in the most mouth-watering fixture of the Euro 2016 group stage.

Belgium come into the European Championship as the highest ranked team of the 24 in France and with lofty expectations after a 16-year absence from the tournament.

But the “golden generation” of Belgian footballers faces a stern test from the get-go, having been drawn in the tournament’s “group of death” – along with Italy, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland.

Coach Marc Wilmots said he expected his Italian counterpart Antonio Conte to have prepared a team of “warriors” for the teams’ opener in Lyon.

“All the teams will have to work hard to survive this group, and I think Italy are even more dangerous when they have their backs against the wall,” said the 47-year-old Wilmots.

“Their coach will prepare a side of warriors and they will be ready to go the distance.”

Italy’s Conte later continued the battle theme in his press conference, describing his opponents as “one of the favourites” to win the tournament.

“There will be warriors on the pitch for both sides, these games are so important you feel the breath on the back of your neck,” said the future Chelsea coach.

“It’s important to use our heads and be switched on,” he added.

‘Outsiders’

Monday’s fixture will pit Belgium’s formidable attack against an Italian squad renowned for its defensive prowess.

The last time they met, in a friendly in Brussels last November, Belgian strikers repeatedly punctured the Italian rearguard, winning 3-1.

This time Belgium will be deprived of injured defender Vincent Company, who will surrender the captain’s armband to Chelsea star Eden Hazard.

“I can’t wait to get started. It’s a huge competition in my adopted home nation and I can’t wait for tomorrow,” said Hazard, who starred at French club Lille – twice winning the Ligue 1 player of the year award – before moving to England.

“We’ve studied Italy, we know they have a great defence from Juventus and it’s up to us to come up with solutions and score the goals.

“I’m looking forward to facing my future manager (Conte at Chelsea). I hope to be able to show him what I can do and that he can rely on me next season.”

Even without Kompany’s experience and with a defence decimated by injuries, Wilmots and Hazard remain confident of backing up Belgium’s status as the world’s second-ranked side.

“We hope we can reach the final, but you can see every game is tricky here. Russia proved that against England and France didn’t have it easy on Friday. Every team wants to do their best,” said Hazard.

The Belgian striker sought to take a little pressure off the squad, adding: “There are two or three teams better equipped than we are. We’re a bit like the outsiders.”