The stakes are high as dark horses Wales face the highest-ranked European side, Belgium, in the quarter-finals at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy in Lille, with the winners going through to meet Portugal for a place in the final.
For Wales, the stakes have rarely been higher. One has to go back to 1958 to find their only previous appearance at a major tournament and then, as now, they produced a valiant performance to reach the last eight. Standing in their way of further progress is a Belgium side ranked second in the world, only behind Argentina, but one that holds few fears for Chris Coleman’s men. Wales took four points off Belgium in the qualifiers for Euro 2016 and did not concede a goal in the process.
Wales are the only British team alive in the competition. They made it to the last eight after defeating Northern Ireland, thanks to Gareth McAuley’s own goal in the second half, which came off the cross from Gareth Bale from the left. The Real Madrid star has been the key player for Coleman’s side and has scored in all three group games. Despite failing to score in the last round, the former Tottenham Hotspur forward will not be disappointed as they have progressed further in the tournament.
Belgium, on the other hand, sealed a berth in the last eight in emphatic fashion after registering a comfortable 4-0 win over Hungary. Eden Hazard had a disappointing last season with Chelsea, but the forward has been in great form in France and was the star player for his country, scoring one and setting up another. Marc Wilmots’ side suffered a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Italy in their first group game and since then they have gone on to win the next three games, scoring eight goals and conceding none.
DATE, TIME AND COVERAGE
Friday 1 July, 21:00 CEST (00:30 IST) kick-off. Live on ITV/HD (Sony Six/HD). Live match commentary on BBC Football.
Ashley Williams has recovered from the shoulder injury he picked up against Northern Ireland. The Wales captain struggled through to full-time with the injury and underwent tests at the start of the week, but joined in with full training on Wednesday. All other 22 Wales players are reported as fully fit ahead of tonight’s game.
Belgium’s defensive injury crisis, meanwhile, is building. 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 been ruled out with an ankle ligament injury. Vertonghen suffered the injury in training on Thursday. The Tottenham Hotspur defender will definitely miss tonight’s game and reports suggest that he could be out for up to four months.
HEAD TO HEAD
Played – 12
Wales Wins – 4
Draw – 3
Belgium Wins – 5
HEAD TO HEAD FIXTURES
12-Jun-15 – European Championship – Wales 1-0 Belgium
16-Nov-14 – European Championship – Belgium 0-0 Wales
15-Oct-13 – World Cup – Belgium 1-1 Wales
07-Sep-12 – World Cup – Wales 0-2 Belgium
11-Oct-97 – World Cup – Belgium 3-2 Wales
Wales – WWLWL
25-Jun – Euro 2016 – Wales 1-0 Northern Ireland
20-Jun – Euro 2016 – Russia 0-3 Wales
16-Jun – Euro 2016 – England 2-1 Wales
11-Jun – Euro 2016 – Wales 2-1 Slovakia
05-Jun – Friendly – Sweden 3-0 Wales
Belgium – WWWLW
26-Jun – Euro 2016 – Hungary 0-4 Belgium
22-Jun – Euro 2016 – Sweden 0-1 Belgium
18-Jun – Euro 2016 – Belgium 3-0 Republic of Ireland
13-Jun – Euro 2016 – Belgium 0-2 Italy
05-Jun – Friendly – Belgium 3-2 Norway
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Gareth Bale (Wales)
When it comes to Wales, it all starts with Bale. He has been a shining light for Coleman’s side and three goals and an assist put him at the top of the Euro 2016 scoring charts. His contribution was key to Wales topping Group B ahead of England and Slovakia and lining up the round of 16 tie against Northern Ireland, in which it was his brilliant cross that resulted in the only goal. For all the passion the Welsh side possess, there is no denying the influence of Bale. Belgium were warned when Bale scored the winning goal against them in qualifying in August and if there is a way to stop him then they will hope they have found it since.
Eden Hazard (Belgium)
What next for Hazard? He has improved with every game Belgium have played in this competition and in the 4-0 win over Hungary in the last 16, Hazard finally found his top gear and it was worth wait. Having won the PFA Player of the Season award in 2015 after leading Chelsea’s title charge, the Belgian struggled for the majority of last season as the champions limped to a 10th place finish. He showed glimpses of his talent towards the end of the season but against Hungary, though, he looked back to his frightening best. The prospect of Hazard being able to continue this form will worry the Welsh defenders, especially Chris Gunter will have to be at his very best to stop him.
Gareth Bale v Radja Nainggolan
Wales will hope to work mainly on the break against Belgium. The Belgians have a number of comfortable ball-playing midfielders and attackers, and so will be looking to dominate the possession, but in Bale, the Welsh possess the most dangerous counter-attacking weapon in the tournament – perhaps the world. Bale has been in outstanding form so far. The Welsh frontman is the joint top scorer in the tournament with three goals and is definitely the biggest attacking threat in Coleman’s side. The man tasked with keeping him at bay and offering the first line of resistance will most certainly be Radja Nainggolan. The AS Roma midfielder is one of the most coveted players in Europe at the moment and it’s not hard to see why. Nainggolan is brilliant at controlling the tempo of the game and offers some much-needed dynamism in midfield but against Bale, he will need to rely on his positioning and potentially tactical fouling to slow the Welshman down.
Wales (5-2-2-1) – Wayne Hennessey; Chris Gunter, James Chester, Ashley Williams, Ben Davies, Neil Taylor; Joe Allen, Joe Ledley; Aaron Ramsey, Gareth Bale; Hal Robson-Kanu.
Belgium (4-2-3-1) – Thibaut Courtois; Thomas Meunier, Toby Alderweireld, Jason Denayer, Jordan Lukaku; Axel Witsel, Radja Nainggolan; Dries Mertens, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard; Romelu Lukaku.
Name – Damir Skomina
Based – Slovenia
Age – 39
Games – 3
Yellow Cards – 6
Red Cards – 0
Penalties – 1
Wales 4/1, Draw 23/10, Belgium 20/23
Belgium are the bookies favourites to win this game but it’s not going to be an easy one for the highest-ranked European team. They have a lot of individual talent in their squad but they haven’t performed their best as a collective unit and this could be the right time to do so against a Wales side who are the dark horses in this tournament and have worked very hard to reach this stage. Belgium will look to dominate the possession while Wales will look to sit deep and hit the opposition on the counter. These two sides have played each other plenty of times recently and this one will be another tight encounter. In a close game like this Belgium should just edge it.
Predicted Score – Wales 1-2 Belgium
This article is written by Shantanu Ambekar, you can follow him on Twitter at @ShantanuAmbekar. What are your thoughts? Let us know by dropping a comment via our comments box below. Make sure you follow us on Twitter, Google+, Instagram and like us on Facebook.