By Jake Foxford (Belgium) & Oliver Marsh (Italy)
Belgium (Jake Foxford)
Belgium. The Red Devils. Marc Wilmot’s men have been the No. 1 team in the world and right now sit at No.2, but lack the results and silverware other teams have claimed in their position. Almost half their 23-man squad are Premier League stars and the majority of the others (with the exception of MLS Defender of the Year Laurent Ciman of Montreal Impact) play at Europa/Champions League-level clubs. It could be a difficult time supporting the men who have historically been less than the sum of their parts, but I am nothing if not optimistic. You’ve heard it all before, but this is going to be our year.
Likely to be their toughest group game, Italy are one of the odds-on favourite for the trophy in Paris. This would be the perfect platform to make a statement of intent and use the combination of strategical seniority and blistering pace the squad have, but the cruel hand of injury has claimed captain Kompany, Tottenham’s Chadli and the 50-caps of Kevin Mirallas. The defence is looking young and untested so top-tier keeper Courtois will have a trial by fire. There’s a real chemistry developing amongst the Italians and that dynamism might make for excellent football but some stinging results for my men.
How I will watch it
Like all good games, it is being shown in The Grapes, the pub three doors down from my house. If you need me on Monday evening, I’ll be there hollering a national anthem I don’t quite yet know the words to. With any luck, the Belgium shirt I ordered will make it here in time as well.
Players to watch
You’d be a fool not to keep an eye on the mighty Kevin De Bruyne, who had a fairly tepid time in the league for Manchester City in comparison to some scintillating cup form. Playing as he is right now, paired with an Eden Hazard returning to the form of Premier League champion, they could be the undoing of any team on any given day. However, my pick of the squad comes in Michy ‘Batsman’ Batshuayi, one of their youngest at 22 but has found 17 goals in a turbulent Ligue 1 season. He is showing no signs of stopping and a good showing in this tournament could find him topping more than a few managerial shopping lists.
Possible threats? I would look out for Italy’s Lorenzo Insigne of Napoli also. He’s more of an unknown quantity on the international stage but the rapid 5’ 4” winger has proved himself on loan spells at Serie B club Pescara. With veterans De Rossi and Motta still leading the opposition, it may be a case of better the devil you know for the Belgians.
Predicted score: Belgium 2 – 2 Italy
I’m predicting an absolute gem of a game for the fans, finishing 2-2 at the final whistle.
Italy (Oliver Marsh)
Not gonna lie, getting Italy as my second team in the sweepstake was pretty good going. They just always seem to get through tournaments. No one seems to give them much of a chance before tournaments (even their Head Coach Antonio Conte has been playing down expectations), and yet there they are in the final in 2012…
Injuries in midfield have left the Italians depleted, but despite their ageing squad I feel they could still be a big presence at this tournament with their tactical awareness and sheer passion.
This opener against Belgium is an absolute humdinger of a clash, one of the highlights of the opening round of games – two of the best teams on the continent, who also happen to produce some of the nicest beers on the continent (Leffe, Peroni, take your pick, you will be embarrassingly drunk for a Monday evening). With Sweden and Republic of Ireland around the corner it’s not going to get any easier, but the winner of this match will invariably be the favourite to top what is being labelled as the ‘Group of Death’ of Euro 2016.
Where will I be watching?
Unfortunately, I will be on a train travelling back from Liverpool to London, so I will have live feeds or the radio to keep me posted on this one. Maybe someone will be selling beer?
Players to watch:
Known for their strong defence, it would be strange of me not to mention the intimidating Serie A title-winning triad of Juventus’ Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli. If they were bouncers and the Italian goal was a club, you’d be lucky if you ever got in.
Prediction: Belgium 1 – 1 Italy
With all the attacking options at Belgium’s disposal, Italy are going to be in for a tough night. However, I can see them sneaking a goal in on the counter attack. If they can keep Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard quiet then they’ll be in with a chance, but I can’t quite see the Belgians failing to score. Ultimately I think the two sides will cancel each other out and leave Lyon with honours even, and at this early stage in the tournament a draw isn’t by any means a bad result for either side. So I’m saying Belgium 1-1 Italy.