Italy's Round of 16 matchup against Austria didn't go quite as smoothly as the Azzurri's romp through the group stage, but thanks to the extra time heroics of Federico Chiesa and Matteo Pessina, Roberto Mancini's side tip-toed their way into the quarterfinals. And as a reward for those efforts, Italy earned the honor of playing Romelu Lukaku and top-ranked Belgium, who endured a nail-biter of their own against Portugal, emerging victorious thanks to Thorgan Hazard's sublime strike in the 42nd minute.
Where the Azzurri's Euro 2020 tale has been one of redemption—erasing the pain and embarrassment of missing out on World Cup 2018—Belgium's story is decidedly different but no less urgent. As the top-ranked national team in the game, the world is seemingly at the Red Devil's feet but rather than entering this tournament as conquering heroes, Belgium has been plagued by doubters, with many questioning if this “golden generation” can finally deliver or if this is truly the last gasp for players like Jan Vertonghen and Eden Hazard.
Italy vs. Belgium: July 2nd. 21:00 CET/3:00 EDT. Football Arena, Munich, Munich.
So, rather than dissecting the Xs and Os of this match, we're diving deep into the mind of our resident Belgian to see how the average man/woman/child on the streets of Antwerp are feeling ahead of tomorrow's quarterfinal.
Before we begin, give our readers some context on this current generation of Belgian players. Where do they rank among your nation’s all-time squads? What are some of your fondest memories of this batch of players? Would failing to win a major tournament tarnish their legacy at home?
Jonas: It’s definitely one of the finest generations we had so far. But to really become THE best Belgian team of all time? Then they’ll need to 1) play a final and 2) win it too.
People forget our Belgium NT has actually played a final once, at Euro 1980 but they narrowly lost vs West Germany. Three years ago they reached the semifinal of the World Cup with pretty much the same squad bar Kompany, Dembele, and Fellaini. However, in 1986 a talented Belgium squad (still remembered fondly in our country) also reached the semifinal at the World Cup in Mexico.
So you know this generation has to take the next step: win silverware. It’s pretty much now or never, anything less will be seen as a disappointment back at home. The pieces are all in place, Martinez is doing a great job but in the end, the winner takes it all.
This group of players has had the same core since 2014. Guys like Vertonghen, Courtois, Mertens, Alderweireld, De Bruyne, Lukaku, Witsel, and Hazard all have 100+ caps or are nearing the 100 milestone. So it literally feels like one big happy family.
There are so many impressive matches to choose from (Euro, World Cup, Nations League, friendlies) but the best ones for me are the 3-2 and 2-1 wins vs Japan and Brazil in the WC 2018, that was sheer excitement. Drubbing Hungary 4-0 in Euro 2016 and beating the US 2-1 in 2014 also tasted very sweet. While the recent 1-0 win vs Portugal was really a thrilling affair and a mature game from our team. They’ve grown so much since 2014. But let’s hope the best is yet to come from Lukaku and co.
Going along with that, what’s the consensus among Belgium fans: Is this really their last chance to achieve something meaningful? Will there be a sharp drop-off after the stars retire, or are there any young up and comers who can help the team transition away from Eden Hazard, De Bruyne, Vertonghen, and Alderweireld, etc.?
Jonas: There is already another big tournament coming up next year in Qatar and the final round of the less prestigious Nations League after this summer. So there might be more chances around the corner to win silverware but the timing now just feels right. Lukaku, Courtois and De Bruyne are in their prime. All important players are fit. Our boogeymen France and Germany are already eliminated. Our defense looks solid. We’re not a bunch of has-beens but also no spring chickens anymore. If you wait for next year in Qatar, strong teams like Argentina, Colombia, and Brazil will also be participating so the competition will be tougher. No no, it’s time to reap the awards of years of hard work.
Concerning the transition, I don’t think there will be a sharp drop-off because the Hazards (Eden and Thorgan), Lukaku, Meunier, De Bruyne, Courtois, Carrasco, Tielemans, etc. will still be here for a couple of years. We’ve got an exciting prospect like Doku coming up and Castagne, Dendoncker, Denayer, Trossard still have room to improve.
For the future, I only see a problem in defense as all our starters against Portugal were 32+. Boyata is decent but also 30 while Denayer might have age on his side but is nowhere near the level of a Vertonghen or Kompany. We don’t have someone like Mancini or Bastoni ready to take over I’m afraid. Vanheusden from Standard looks the real deal but he’s still raw and only recently had a serious ACL injury. Go get him, Roma!
Belgium got off to a fast start against Russia but has struggled ever since, barely squeaking past Denmark, needing an own goal against Finland, and then using a wonder strike from Thorgan Hazard to push past Portugal. Have you noticed any troubling patterns over their past few matches? Are they perhaps too dependent on Lukaku? Is there a lack of impact talent coming off the bench?
Jonas: Quite the contrary. Last WC in 2018 they wanted to do things differently. They wanted to win beautifully. Which nearly got them eliminated against Japan. Same during Euro 2016 and the horrible breakdown vs Wales. Zero concentration. Since then the NT has matured and knows when and how to win, albeit ugly. The group is united and there’s a clear winning mentality and hunger. Part of it thanks to Martinez who protects his players, almost like a dad figure.
There was a time when we would look fragile and uncertain against the likes of Andorra, Azerbaijan, or Estonia. Now we look self-assured, we’re not getting too anxious if it’s still 0-0 after 70 minutes (see Finland). Against Portugal, Lukaku didn’t have a great game but then others (Thorgan Hazard, Courtois, Vermaelen) stepped up their game and dragged us through. Against Denmark Hazard, Witsel, and De Bruyne all came from the bench which totally changed the outcome of the match.
Nah, I’m not too concerned about this team. You’ll have to come up with something better, Bren.
Following that, what chance would you give Belgium on Friday if Eden Hazard and De Bruyne can’t play? Who takes their place and how does that impact their style of play?
Jonas: Well damn, you just countered me like Beth Harmon did in The Queen’s Gambit against Borgov. Losing both De Bruyne and Eden hurts obviously. Take away Mbappe and Pogba and France will be weaker as well.
I think Mertens will get a shot once again, although he hasn’t been great lately. Dries knows the Italian team very well, some are his friends so for Martinez this can be an advantage. Carrasco will be the other replacement, he filled in for De Bruyne against Russia and Denmark.
But Italy is of a different caliber. They defend a lot better than those previous teams and Carrasco isn’t as good as Kevin concerning breaking up a defense or serving goals on a platter for Lukaku. Mertens is quick and roughly the same composure as Eden yet less genial and unpredictable with a ball. Let’s just hope for Belgium’s sake both Hazard and De Bruyne are fit and will start.
Italy lacks the star power of Lukaku, Hazard, and De Bruyne, but which player(s) do you think will give the Belgium defense fits on Friday? What are some of the key matchups we should watch?
Jonas: I think the fast Insigne and Spinazzola could worry our older defense. Immobile too because he’s a hustler. Chiesa, Barella, Locatelli... Italy has a lot of options in attack and that’s exactly their strong point. You can’t just pick one or two-star players to neutralize (like Lukaku and De Bruyne with Belgium). They all have that little spark that can turn a match in Italy’s favor.
Lukaku vs Chiellini/Bonucci is a nice matchup. And the two best goalkeepers of Euro 2020 will face off: Courtois and Donnarumma. Jorginho-Verratti vs Witsel-Tielemans, who will boss the midfield? So many clashes, oh please let it be Friday evening already!
Our very own Leonardo Spinazzola has made a strong case to make the Euro 2020 Best XI, so how do you think Roberto Martinez plans on limiting Spinazzola’s influence on Friday?
I think Martinez will try to block Spinazzola with the double pivot Meunier/Alderweireld on the right. Perhaps he’ll ask Meunier to be more aggressive and charge down his right flank so Spinazzola will need to defend first and think about attacking later. But then you risk a counterattack with the speedy Insigne and Immobile. Tough one.
Italy really impressed me in the group stage with the ability to get the ball to the other side of the pitch in a matter of seconds, but they’ll face one of the sturdiest defenses of the tournament and a team riding high. So Mancini will need to have a plan A and B as well. Perhaps even C if it comes down to penalties.
Finally, give us a prediction for Friday’s match against Italy. If Belgium is victorious, are they odds-on favorites to win the whole thing?
Jonas: I think they have a 70% chance of progressing but it’s gonna be tight, just like against Portugal. I’m going for a 2-1 win. And after that, the sky’s the limit. England looks like the toughest opponent left in a possible final and we beat their asses TWICE in the World Cup 2018. So bring them on!
If we win the whole thing, I swear Belgium will return to the swinging sixties, love is all around, corona will be a distant memory and I will strip down butt naked and run around the church tower in Tielrode, mine and Jan Vertonghen’s home town.