July 1 – Following the lacklustre first Euro 2016 quarterfinal, this one has all the makings of a mouth-watering affair between the side currently ranked No. 2 in the world and outsiders Wales for whom this is the biggest match since the 1958 World Cup.
Marc Wilmots’ Belgium have gradually gained momentum after their opening slipup against Italy and will start firm favourites but Wales will take confidence from the fact they took four points off Belgium during the qualifying campaign. In fact the two adversaries will be meeting for the fifth time since the start of 2012.
Wales have won one, drawn two and lost one of those four previous games – no mean feat against opponents second only to Argentina in the rankings. Gareth Bale and the rest of the Welsh team know that on their day, Belgium can blow any team away (just ask Ireland and Hungary) but they do have defensive deficiencies for Bale’s brilliance to exploit.
Regular centre-backs Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts didn’t even make it to the tournament, while Thomas Vermaelen is suspended and Jan Vertonghen has now been ruled out with an ankle ligament injury suffered in training and could be out for up to four months.
Belgium will of course enjoy huge support at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, with Lille just a few miles from the Belgian border. But like Iceland, Wales have relied on rock-solid teamwork, feeding off each other for inspiration, and have kept back-to-back clean sheets against Russia and Northern Ireland.
Can they do the same tonight? It’s a tough ask. Eight goals without reply in the past three games will give the Belgians plenty of confidence as both teams bid for a semifinal place against Portugal. “We know what’s at stake – it’s a fantastic pressure to have,” says Wa;es manager Chris Coleman. “Since that 1958 quarter-final, we have to put this down as the biggest game our country’s ever been involved in. People have already said: ‘Wales can’t lose, they weren’t meant to get to the quarter-final, they’re the underdogs.’ This definitely isn’t the way we see it.”
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