Euro 2016: 1 day to go

Football: Belgians to finally come of age?

Clockwise from left: Belgium's Jan Vertonghen, Radja Nainggolan, Dries Mertens and Mousa Dembele announcing their departure for Bordeaux, France on social media. The Red Devils, and coach Marc Wilmots, face high expectations to live up to their lofty Fifa
Clockwise from left: Belgium's Jan Vertonghen, Radja Nainggolan, Dries Mertens and Mousa Dembele announcing their departure for Bordeaux, France on social media. The Red Devils, and coach Marc Wilmots, face high expectations to live up to their lofty Fifa world ranking at Euro 2016. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

No longer playing the part of dark horses, the Red Devils, with an array of talent in the squad, are expected to deliver in France

PARIS • Marc Wilmots' Belgium are aiming to topple the established favourites at Euro 2016 and with stars such as Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne in their ranks, they have the weapons to so.

This is the Belgians' first time qualifying for the European Championship Finals since co-hosting the 2000 tournament. They are in a tough Group E with Italy, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland, but Wilmots is eager for success.

"There's no doubt that we have big ambitions; our aim must always be to reach the final," he told Fifa.com.

Thanks to a golden generation - stand-in skipper Hazard, de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois - the Red Devils have risen to No. 2 in the world rankings behind Argentina.

"Favourites, no," Wilmots cautioned. "France are playing at home, Spain, Germany and then maybe we're just behind".

Belgium are loaded with attacking talent, but they have been hit by injuries to key defenders including Vincent Kompany, Bjorn Engels, Nicolas Lombaerts and Dedryck Boyata.

"The defenders who I have at my disposal are still very good," insisted the Belgium coach.

  • Group Preview E

  • June 14, midnight (S'pore time)
    Ireland v Sweden


    June 14, 3am Belgium v Italy


    June 17, 9pm Italy v Sweden


    June 18, 9pm Belgium v Ireland


    June 23, 3am Sweden v Belgium


    June 23, 3am Italy v Ireland

Belgium reached the last eight at the 2014 World Cup, without really excelling, before falling 1-0 to eventual finalists Argentina.

It was too high a hurdle for what Wilmots called "easily the youngest of the quarter-finalists".

Two years on, high home expectations are matched by a sense the time has arrived for the team to justify their world ranking.

"People will be waiting for Belgium and waiting for me (to deliver) but we'll give our utmost," said Hazard.

Belgium's first Group E match is on Monday in Lyon against Italy, whom they swept aside 3-1 in a friendly in Brussels last November.

Italy are always a force to be reckoned with, though, and are expected to at least progress from the group, even if coach Antonio Conte might be distracted by his impending move to Chelsea following the end of the tournament.

Italy announced on Tuesday that Giampiero Ventura of Torino will take over as national coach on July 11.

Conte has played down the Azzurri's chances after ending preparations with a patchy 1-0 win over Scotland and a 2-0 win over Finland.

"We have to believe that we can challenge Belgium, but we know they're a great side," he said.

Italy still appear a work in progress for Ventura to pursue. Two years after exiting the World Cup at the first round for the second successive time, a solid and reliable starting XI has yet to emerge.

Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti are out through injury, while Conte overlooked the veteran Andrea Pirlo and Mario Ballotelli, the semi-final hero of Euro 2012.

At that tournament, Italy cruised to a 2-0 win over Ireland and will expect a similar outcome when they meet in Lille on June 22.

Ireland's boisterous fans have called their draw the Group of Death, but will travel undaunted in hope of a better campaign than Euro 2012 when they crashed to defeats by Croatia and Spain.

It is 14 years since the "Boys in Green" last won a match at a major tournament, a 3-0 win over Saudi Arabia at the 2002 World Cup. Record scorer Robbie Keane was Ireland's star then but is now 35 and has fitness issues that had initially put his selection for the squad in doubt.

This is Ireland's first major tournament since Martin O'Neill took over as coach in 2013, but a prolonged stay in France will depend on players like Shane Long and Robbie Brady proving they have the ability to match Keane's star quality.

The opener against Sweden will be eyed as their best chance for a win and a third-place finish in the group. But the Swedes, anchored by talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic and bolstered by a convincing 3-0 win over Wales last Sunday, will have the same idea.

While it might be unfair to call Sweden a one-man team, they are heavily reliant on the sublime scoring talents of Ibrahimovic who, at 34 looks unlikely to play in another major tournament, will aim to grace Euro 2016 with his legendary flourish.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 09, 2016, with the headline 'Belgians to finally come of age?'. Print Edition | Subscribe