Belgium's stars face moment of truth against Ireland
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Marc Wilmot’s Belgium will walk out on Saturday afternoon at the architectural wonder that is the new Stade de Bordeaux. Spectacularly intricate, the 42,000 seat stadium is the brainchild of the star practice Herzog & de Meuron.
The venue could become the place where Belgian football is forced to rethink its path. When the players emerge, the question will be: are they just a collection of prodigiously talented individuals?
This is their moment to show that they are rightly deemed the second best ranked side in the world and capable of consistently challenging for major honours.
The 2014 World Cup quarter-finalists will come under intense scrutiny in their second game in Group E. There are few more daunting challenges than Ireland – a team at their best in the role of underdog.
Belgium have to win to stay in the competition. After their opening day loss against Italy, another defeat will eliminate them from a tournament in which they were tipped to feature strongly.
So what’s at the heart of the Belgium problem? Essentially nothing, says the Ireland manager Martin O’Neill. “They are very talented, no question about it. Belgium’s players turn out at big clubs in Europe every week. And I’ve said it many times that if they get out of this group and go on to win the competition, it wouldn’t be a surprise.”
O’Neill says that Belgium were perhaps lulled into thinking that Italy were poor. Coach Antonio Conte had talked down the chances of his Azzurri but then they delivered a hard-working 2-0 victory over Belgium in Lyon. Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pellè were on target that day. Eder hit Italy’s winner against Sweden on 17 June to send Italy into the knockout phase.
Neither Belgium nor Ireland can yet enjoy such horizons. Indeed, Ireland are in the slightly better position having drawn their first game 1-1 with Sweden on 13 June at the Stade de France.
Norwich City’s Wes Hoolahan swept in Ireland’s goal that day. He says the team’s ability to keep Sweden superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic quiet for most of the game has given them confidence they can do the same against Belgium’s maestros such as Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard.
“Of course Belgium are a good team. But the way we are playing, running around for each other makes us feel we will put in a good performance,” said Hoolahan.
And O’Neill, who won the English first division title and two European Cups with an unheralded Nottingham Forest side, knows that it is the collective that counts – an ideal driven into him by his Forest manager, the legendary Brian Clough.
“Maybe Belgium’s players will look at ours knowing that there are some who are not playing at the top level each week and maybe they’ll feel that they’ll have an advantage. But it doesn’t always work out that way.”
Wilmots is expected to make changes for the clash. The 47-year-old, who returns to the city where he played for one season during a 16 year career, said goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was the only player not at risk of being axed.
"We have to win our next two games to make the knockout stages and that is what we'll try to do."