PARIS: Marc Wilmots’ Belgium are aiming to topple the established favourites at Euro 2016 and with stars like Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne have the weapons to so.
Belgium have qualified for the European Championship finals for the first time since co-hosting the 2000 tournament.
They are in a tough Group E with Italy, Sweden and Irish Republic but Wilmots is eager for succeess.
“There’s no doubt that we have big ambitions; our aim must always be to reach the final,” coach Marc Wilmots told FIFA.com.
Thanks to a golden generation that has produced stars like skipper Hazard, De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois, the ‘Red Devils’ have risen to number two in the world rankings behind Argentina.
“Favourites, no,” Wilmots cautioned. “France are playing at home, Spain, Germany and then maybe we’re just behind”.
Loaded with attacking talent they have been hit however by injuries to key defenders including Vincent Kompany, Bjorn Engels, Nicolas Lombaerts and Dedryck Boyata.
“The defenders who I have at my disposal are still very good players,” insisted Wilmots.
– Conte farewell –
Belgium reached the last eight at the 2014 World Cup, without really excelling, before falling 1-0 to eventual finalists Argentina. It was too high a hurdle for what Wilmots called “easily the youngest of the quarter-finalists”.
Two years on, high home expectations are matched by a sense the time has arrived for the team to justify its world ranking.
“People will be waiting for Belgium and waiting for me (to deliver) but we’ll give our utmost,” said skipper Eden Hazard.
Belgium’s first Group E match is on June 13 in Lyon against Italy who they swept aside 3-1 in Brussels in November.
Italy are always a force to be reckoned with though and are expected to at least progress from the group, even if coach Antonio Conte might be distracted by his impending move to Chelsea following Euro 2016.
Italy announced on Tuesday that Giampiero Ventura of Torino will take over as national coach on July 11.
Conte has played down the Azzurri’s chances after ending preparations with a patchy 1-0 win over Scotland and a 2-0 win over Finland.
“We have to believe that we can challenge Belgium, but we know they’re a great side,” he said.
Italy still appear a work in progress for Ventura to pursue. Two years after exiting the World Cup at the first round for the second successive edition, a solid and reliable starting XI has yet to emerge.
Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti are out through injury, while Conte overlooked the veteran Andrea Pirlo and Marco Ballotelli, the semi-final hero of Euro 2012.
At that tournament Italy cruised to a 2-0 win over Ireland and will expect a similar outcome when they meet in Lille on June 22.
Ireland’s boisterous fans have called their draw the Group of Death, but will travel undaunted in hope of a better campaign than Euro 2012 when they crashed to defeats by Croatia and Spain.
It is 14 years since the “Boys in Green” last won a match at a major tournament, a 3-0 win over Saudi Arabia at the 2002 World Cup.
Record goal scorer Robbie Keane was Ireland’s star then but is now 35 and has fitness issues that had put his selection for the squad in doubt.
Ireland’s first major tournament since Martin O’Neill took over as coach in 2013, a prolonged stay in France will depend on players like Shane Long and Robbie Brady proving that they have Keane’s star quality.
The opener against Sweden will be eyed as their best chance for a win and a third-place finish but the Swedes, anchored by talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic and bolstered by a convincing 3-0 win over Wales last Sunday, will have the same idea.
While it might be unfair to call Sweden a one-man team, they are heavily reliant on the sublime goalscoring talents of the 34-year-old Ibrahimovic who, unlikely to play in another major tournament, will look to grace Euro 2016 with his legendary flourish.