Written By: Amos Murphy
As the night fell on the Stade de Lyon, anticipation grew ahead of the tournaments first big heavyweight clash. A Belgian squad glittered with talent from all across Europe, paired against a subdued Italian team, lacking any sheer attacking quality and a shadow of their former illustrious figure in European football – it was Belgium’s to lose.
No longer the dark horses, Belgium heading into the tournament were amongst the favourites: Hazard, De Bruyne, Courtois, Axel Witsel, Lukaku – just some of the superstars the Belgian squad possessed. The only problem which faced Marc Wilmots was can he mould all of this quality into a championship contending, potentially even winning side? – it proved a much harder task than expected.
It was unheard of for an Italian team to go into a first game of a tournament underdogs, even more so at the expense of Belgium. This however, was a sign of the times and ranked second in the FIFA rankings (only behind Lionel Messi’s Argentina), expectation was high and it was time for Belgium’s ‘golden era’ to take centre stage and make a statement by turning over a derelict and deprived Italian side.
It was an Italian footballing masterclass.
Despite having a defence including Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld; the premier league’s best defensive partnership last season, the Belgium back line suffered a torrid night, being torn apart by a winger who struggled to get into the Sunderland side and a striker who up until spring had gone on a twelve match goal drought.
Whilst the absence of their captain and leader Vincent Kompany paid dividends, excuses cannot be made and Belgium’s inability to be organised properly, coupled with two holding midfielders who had their hearts set on playing centre forward, left Thibaut Courtois’ goal severely exposed and susceptible to damaging Italian counter attacks.
However, this Belgium team isn’t reliant on its defence and their main asset is going forward. They managed twenty-four goals in qualifying and with their early defensive frailties being perfectly shown, it was clear the likes of Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku were going to have to carry this Belgium side and salvage something from the first match in the ‘group of death’.
Despite having eighteen shots, only two were on target and this Belgium squad seemed reluctant to want to score. The standout chance falling to Lukaku, a player hyped up as potentially one day being the best striker in the world, one on one but inevitably he fluffed it.
Throughout the whole ninety minutes it was clear the entire team looked lost for ideas and lacked the required intensity, pace and desire to win. Whilst some may claim, the manager included, this is down to their abundance of Premier League players being tired after a demanding season at club level, the blame must be pointed at one individual only: Marc Wilmots.
His lack of awareness to play to Belgium’s strengths cost them dearly last night, pushing Kevin De Bruyne out wide to accommodate for Marouane Fellani, whilst the dynamic Moussa Dembele sat watching on, all so Belgium could adopt an eighteenth century style of play and fatuously attempt to compete aerially against the best defence in the entire tournament – a futile move.
Shifting Vertonghen out to right back, a great tactically aware defender maybe, but nowhere near as versatile to play such a position, was another example of how Marc Wilmots is single handedly wasting away Belgium’s golden boys.
It is yet to be seen whether or not Belgium can bounce back and take the required wins against the Republic of Ireland and Sweden to progress to the later stages of the tournament, but one thing that is clear, whilst Wilmots continues to pick players which don’t fit the system and send them out with no clear intentions of playing to their strengths, they will fail miserably and be left wondering what could’ve been.