It’s going to be a very interesting Euro 2016 quarter-finals clash as Wales and Belgium tussle at the Stade Pierre Mauroy on Friday evening.
One one side will be a team with one superstar and a solid supporting cast. On the other will be a team with plenty of talented individuals, but still have doubts about how they work as a collective.
Wales are featuring in their first ever Euro tournament. And it’s been so far, so good for the Dragons. Wins over debutants Slovakia and group whipping boys Russia helped them to top their group – despite losing to England. They did not have it easy against a staunchly Northern Ireland side. What Chris Coleman’s side did have, however, is Gareth Bale. Before this tournament, the Real Madrid star single-handedly carried his team through Euro 2016 qualifiers. Having scored seven out of Wales’s 11 goals, he was tipped as the go-to man in France.
And so far he hasn’t disappointed. His cross turned out to be the only goal after Northern Ireland’s defense turned it into their own net. So far, he’s the joint-top goalscorer alongside Antoine Griezmann. Counting his effort that resulted in the game-winner in the round of 16, he has contributed to four out of Wales’s seven at this tournament.
The spotlight, naturally, is on Bale yet again this Friday. And fans will not be the only ones with their eyes on him. Belgium will be gunning for some small revenge after Wales beat them in qualifying. Although the Red Devils finished top of their group, Wales were the only side to beat them. As the no. 2 side in the world, Marc Wilmots’s side are viewed as contenders to win it all, but they need to back this up with proving it on the pitch.
Well, so far, Belgium have been steadily improving. They were given a rude welcome back to continental competition by losing 2-0 to Italy. But the Red Devils rebounded admirably. Since shipping two against the Azzurri, they have scored eight, and conceded zilch. This includes a comprehensive 4-0 rout of Hungary, who were no match from start to finish, and cruising to an easy 3-0 win over Ireland.
Eden Hazard in particular has been especially bright and looking more like the player who set the Premier League alight in the 2014/2015 season. In Belgium’s last game against Hungary, he completed12 dribbles. That’s the most by any player at a Euro tournament since 1980, and so far he’s been directly involved in four out of the Red Devils’ six Euro goals.
Wales, however, will be a much tougher opponent than Hungary or Ireland. Even if this tournament hadn’t been expanded to 24, the Dragons still would have qualified as the runners-up in Group B. In terms of personnel, Wales has several players one card away from a ban: Aaron Ramsey, Neil Taylor, Sam Voakes and Ben Davis all must be careful, whilst skipper Ashley Williams is still nursing a shoulder injury.
Belgium also has quite a few players walking the suspension tightrope. Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Meunier, Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini and Michy Batshuayi are all in danger of missing the semis, whilst Thomas Vermaelen is banned for this game. With Vincent Kompany out, they were dealt another major blow defensively when it was announced that Jan Vertonghen will miss the rest of the tournament due to an ankle injury.
So who will win this one? Well, here are some interesting stats. Belgium has a knack for scoring after half-time. Seven out of their last eight Euro 2016 goals have happened in the second period, and six of those after the 60th minute mark. Wales, meanwhile, have conceded all three of their goals so far after the 56th minute. If those stats are any indication, then this is a game that could be very well decided after the first 45.