Euro 2016 Group E – Belgium under scrutiny after opening loss

Given the expectation and anticipation surrounding Belgium coming into Euro 2016, their opening performance against Italy was a huge disappointment. It has led to many doubts over their credentials, so the onus will be on them to respond in positive style by defeating a Republic of Ireland side that will undoubtedly work tirelessly and attempt to frustrate them at every opportunity.

Belgium saw a lot of the ball in Lyon, but clear chances were scarce in a match where the difference between the two sides was very evident. Marc Wilmot’s men looked like a team made up of 11 very talented individuals, but it was the team ethic of Italy that shone through, making up for their apparent lack of star quality.

Of those talented individuals, many of them failed to produce much in the way of end product, with Kevin de Bruyne enduring a rare off-night while Romelu Lukaku looked nothing like the player that has terrorised Premier League defences during his time playing for Everton. A more fluent and coherent performance is required here, and the Irish will be a tough nut to crack.

After edging ahead in their game with Sweden, it was frustrating for the Republic of Ireland that they could not hold on as their vulnerability on their right side was eventually exploited. It was an even affair, and one which showcased their workmanlike attributes.

On the positive side, Wes Hoolahan took his goal brilliantly, and Jeff Hendrick did himself great credit with a strong display in the centre of midfield, but realistically that result leaves them needing to upset the odds in at least one of their remaining matches in order to stand a chance of going through.

The same goes for the Swedes, who will be asking themselves why they only started playing after going a goal behind. A passive collective effort up until that point had seen few chances and a peripheral role for star man Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while Marcus Berg was the personification of anonymity, so they may end up regretting their slow start should they fail to progress from Group E.

Martin Olsson was their outstanding player on the left side and he could have more joy against an Italy side that play with wing-backs, so can occasionally leave space in wide areas for the opposition to take advantage of. It will be interesting to see how both sides approach this one, as Italy tend to perform better when set up to be compact, so they may allow Sweden to come on to them.

It has often been recognised that the general public in Italy have relatively low expectations for this tournament, but their seems to be a healthy mentality emanating from the squad, whose celebrations at the end of their success over Belgium indicated a real togetherness and spirit. As the oldest squad at Euro 2016, their experience could count for a lot.

The most important men in the Italy side are the back three, and here they will be tasked with handling the threat of Ibrahimovic. Do that, and produce another complete performance as they did against Belgium, and they should secure a last 16 place.

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