Belgium can thwart Italy

Belgium forward Eden Hazard (left) goes one on one with goalkeeper Simon Mignolet in training. While Belgium have beaten Italy just four times in 21 meetings, they beat the Azzurri 3-1 in a friendly in Brussels in November.
Belgium forward Eden Hazard (left) goes one on one with goalkeeper Simon Mignolet in training. While Belgium have beaten Italy just four times in 21 meetings, they beat the Azzurri 3-1 in a friendly in Brussels in November.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE

History favours Conte's men but Fellaini says his team are confident of their depth in attack

GROUP E

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LYON • It will be Belgium's star-studded attack against Italy's dogged defence and Marouane Fellaini says his team have the weapons to make a winning start to Euro 2016 today.

Marc Wilmots' Belgium have shot up the world rankings from 66th in 2009 to second coming into the European Championship and are among the favourites in France.

Now Manchester United's Fellaini wants Premier League stars Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku to showcase their talent against the Azzurri in Lyon in Group E.

"We have a lot of top quality players up front who can make the difference," said midfielder Fellaini about Belgium, who netted 24 goals in qualifying. "I hope they are ready to score goals and make a difference.

"It's always important to start with a win, especially for our confidence. It's going to be a real challenge against Italy, but it's up to us to play through their defence."

Both teams are among the favourites to win the title, but first they must escape one of the toughest groups with Sweden and the Republic of Ireland also in the pool.

Belgium are chasing a first competitive win against Italy since May 1972 and have won just four of their 21 meetings. But they got the better of Italy with a 3-1 win in Brussels last November.

"This friendly (defeat) was important for us to understand our own ambitions. Of course, this is a tournament. It's very different, but we are ready," said Italy's Brazil-born striker Eder.

Belgium's Napoli forward Dries Mertens said his team can expect a battle royal.

"Italy have a good squad. They're a good collective team with a very strong defence, but can switch very fast from defence to attack," said the 29-year-old.

The main question Italy coach Antonio Conte has to answer is who will spearhead his attack.

Napoli forward Lorenzo Insigne, striker Ciro Immobile and Eder are the prime candidates, while Southampton's Graziano Pelle and Juventus' Simone Zaza are also vying to start.

Immobile says Belgium "must be respected, but not feared".

There is a steely air around the Italians, who are chasing a second European title, having been drubbed 4-0 by Spain in the Euro 2012 final four years ago in Kiev.

"It will be a well-contested match, because we are two very strong teams who would like to make it to the end of this competition," said Immobile.

But he warns winning the opener will count for nothing if Italy then lose to the Swedish and Irish, like in 2014 when they beat England, then lost to Costa Rica and Uruguay at the World Cup.

Wilmots says his forwards will have to overcome the Italians' height at set-pieces.

"Italy use their height to block corners and free kicks, so we are aware and have to be very concentrated when that happens," said the Belgium coach.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2016, with the headline 'Belgium can thwart Italy'. Print Edition | Subscribe