Lille (France) (AFP) – Emboldened by Belgium’s defensive selection problems, Wales manager Chris Coleman has told Eden Hazard and his team-mates to expect “a hell of a game” in Friday’s Euro 2016 quarter-final.
Hazard starred as Belgium crushed Hungary 4-0 in the last 16, but his side have since lost Thomas Vermaelen to suspension and Jan Vertonghen to injury, robbing coach Marc Wilmots of the left half of his defence.
Wales needed a Gareth McAuley own goal to edge Northern Ireland, but with Belgium a much more attacking team, Coleman is hoping that Gareth Bale will be able to wreak havoc on their rejigged rearguard.
“They’ll play the way they play. They play with imagination, they’ve got pace and power. We’ll play the way we play,” said Coleman, whose country will be playing in their first quarter-final since the 1958 World Cup.
“When it’s time to defend, we’ll defend with our lives and when it’s time to attack, we’ll attack with our lives. If we do that, Belgium will be in for a hell of a game.”
A historic semi-final against Portugal or Poland in Lyon on July 6 awaits the victors of the game at Stade Pierre-Mauroy.
Perennial dark horses Belgium, second in the FIFA rankings, are desperate to make good on their squad’s vast potential and reach a first major semi-final since the 1986 World Cup.
But having outlasted British rivals England and Northern Ireland, Wales are full of confidence and seeking to go one better than the team that fell to Brazil and a 17-year-old Pele at the 1958 World Cup.
Wales took four points from Belgium in qualifying, prompting Bale to claim that they are the Red Devils’ “bogey team”.
But it was who Belgium who had the upper hand in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, winning away and drawing at home, and Wilmots believes there is little between the teams.
“They’re not our bete noir,” he said.
“They’re a difficult team to play against, like any team who play with two or three individuals who are free to go anywhere and who can be decisive in one action. That’s what makes them dangerous.”
– Shootout –
With the Belgian border only 10 kilometres (six miles) away and around 100,000 Belgian fans expected in Lille, the match could feel like a home game for Wilmots’s team.
It also represents a homecoming of sorts for Hazard, who spent seven years at Lille before joining Chelsea in 2012.
The 25-year-old made a slow start to the tournament, following a wretched season with Chelsea, but shone against Hungary, scoring one goal and laying on another in a man-of-the-match display.
Friday’s game has been billed as a shootout between Hazard and Real Madrid star Bale, each of whom symbolise ‘Golden Generations’ that have arrived at sporting maturity at roughly the same time.
Bale, who has scored three goals at the tournament to date, was shackled for much of last Saturday’s game against Northern Ireland, only to pop up with the cross that yielded the decisive goal.
Neutral observers will hope that Hazard and Bale, 26, have a fitting stage on which to perform.
Bale could be seen inquisitively tugging at the relaid turf during an eve-of-match pitch walk on Thursday, raising fears it could churn up during the game.
With Vermaelen and Vertonghen out, the latter having torn ankle ligaments in training, 21-year-olds Jason Denayer and Jordan Lukaku — younger brother of striker Romelu — are in line to step into the Belgian defence.
Hazard sustained a minor thigh problem against Hungary that kept him out of training for two days, but he worked out on Thursday and said he was ready to play.
Atletico Madrid winger Yannick Ferreira Carrasco could also return to the team in place of Dries Mertens.
Wales captain Ashley Williams has been passed fit after injuring his left shoulder against Northern Ireland, while Hal Robson-Kanu is vying with Sam Vokes for a starting berth up front.
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