It has long been acknowledged that the highlight of the opening round of group fixtures is the meeting between Belgium and Italy; the team currently reaping the rewards of its golden generation against a nation that is one of the world’s most successful, but now suffering from a relative dearth of talent. It finally takes place on Monday evening, where both sides will be expected to deliver a statement of intent.
Belgium are full of top quality individuals, many of whom grace the English Premier League. Second in the world rankings and among the favourites to win their first major trophy, there is a lot of pressure on boss Marc Wilmots to mould his squad into an outstanding team when it really matters. Italy are strongest at the back and will prove a difficult team to break down, so this will be a major early test of their attacking cohesion.
Vincent Kompany is absent from the tournament through injury, but Belgium still have an excellent backline which includes Tottenham duo Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. Meanwhile, the prospect of seeing Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard on opposite flanks is a massively enticing one as both come into the game in fine form.
The only real question surrounds who will play as the central striker. Despite his excellent contributions for Everton, Romelu Lukaku does not always hold favour with his national team, so Wilmots could go with one of Liverpool pair Christian Benteke and Divock Origi.
As for Italy, their main striker is likely to be Graziano Pelle, who has established himself as a key component of the setup under Antonio Conte, who will depart after Euro 2016 to take over at Chelsea. The 30-year-old was top scorer during an unconvincing qualifying campaign in which goals were scarce, so it would be a surprise of The Azzurri were to reach the final stages of this competition.
Despite the lack of genuine quality that Conte has at his disposal, Italy should still expect to make it through from Group E along with their opening opponents, which in theory makes the game between the Republic of Ireland and Sweden even more crucial.
Both sides know that defeat at the Stade de France would give them a huge uphill struggle in their bid to reach the last 16, so will be going all out for victory in what should be an entertaining game. Zlatan Ibrahimovic will inevitably steal most of the attention as he looks to propel what is otherwise a very ordinary Sweden side forward, and he promises much, thanks in no small part to his sizeable ego.
The Republic of Ireland fought their way to these finals through the play-offs after coming third in a very difficult qualifying group, so will be hoping that all their hard work in making it to France will not be for nothing. Unlike their opponents they are very much a team, one that contains no real stars and are dependent on their battling qualities.
Form coming into the competition has not been great for Martin O’Neill’s side, so this would be a good time to raise performance levels. Ireland are more than good enough to defeat Sweden – stop Ibrahimovic and they are halfway there.
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