The manner in which Belgium began Euro 2016 in losing comfortably at the hands of Italy left them with a huge point to prove, and they responded ideally by breezing past the Republic of Ireland on Saturday. It now means that only a draw against Sweden will be enough to send them through to the knockout stages in second place.
Coach Marc Wilmots had no option but to make changes to his starting line-up after that opening performance, bringing in the excellent Mousa Dembele in midfield and replacing square peg Marouane Fellaini with exciting winger Yannick Carrasco. Add to that much-improved outings from the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku and it ensured that victory was never in doubt from the moment the deadlock was broken.
Lukaku looked much more like his normal self in front of goal, and it is vital that he continues in that vein if Belgium are to fulfil their promise. True, they will face more considerable tests than the one provided by the Republic of Ireland, but it appears that they are heading in the right direction again.
A draw should be well within Belgium’s capabilities, but for Sweden it is make or break. Only a win would be enough to give them a chance of qualifying as one of the best third placed sides, having conceded late on to lose to Italy on Friday.
That expertly taken goal from Eder was a hammer blow for Erik Hamren’s team, who competed well throughout what was a rather tepid encounter. Their main concern going into this final group match is the lack of a major goal threat, especially as captain and star name Zlatan Ibrahimovic has not been as influential as they would have hoped.
Here they must find a way of getting him into the game, as otherwise it is difficult to see anyone else really stepping up to the mark. So far, only left-back Martin Olsson has appeared mildly capable of making something happen.
Therefore, it will take a special performance from Sweden to overcome the team ranked higher than any other in this competition, and the same counts for the Republic of Ireland when they face Italy. They must win, while improving a goal difference that compares unfavourably with other sides chasing a best third place slot.
The manager and players have promised a rousing performance, something which they perhaps owe to their supporters following a powder puff showing against Belgium, where they posed next to no goal threat. Shane Long will need better service from wide areas, while he will need more support from his teammates while they are on the attack.
One thing which might be cause for optimism is that Italy have suggested that they will make a number of changes to their team after ensuring top spot in Group E with a game to spare. The display against Sweden was not as eye-catching as the one that sunk Belgium, but it was similarly effective, and they are shaping up well as they prepare for the knockout stages.
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