Ireland should have beaten Sweden in their first game of Euro 2016, while Belgium were lucky not to lose by more than 2-0 against Italy.
Both nations need a win in the pursuit of a knockout place in France. Our experts John Chapman and Miguel Delaney preview the game.
John Chapman: After Italy, there will be changes. The most significant will be in midfield where manager Marc Wilmots will play with a creative No 10. This will be either Eden Hazard or Kevin De Bruyne and Wilmots hinted yesterday that Hazard has the edge. The two have never played effectively together and if Hazard gets the nod, it could mean De Bruyne on the bench. Wilmots could then bring in Atletico’s Yannick Carrasco and Napoli’s Dries Mertens on the flanks.
Marouane Fellaini will stay in the XI in a more withdrawn role, so Roma’s Radja Nainggolan will drop out. Axel Witsel is a certainty to stay in his role of protecting the back four. Up front, Romelu Lukaku is unlikely to start and Wilmots will choose between the experienced Christian Benteke or the more mobile and creative Michy Batshuayi.
Miguel Delaney: The big doubt before the Sweden game has become the big absence for this one. Jon Walters is out of the meeting with Belgium after limping out of the opening 1-1 draw with a recurrence of his recent Achilles problem, and assistant manager Roy Keane ruled him out of the Bordeaux match. That will most likely mean James McClean coming in and there might be changes to the centre-back position after Ciaran Clark somewhat surprisingly started against Sweden and scored an open goal in an uncertain display.
The irony is that selection was only a surprise because, well, it was no surprise. Martin O’Neill basically got Ireland to this tournament through unexpected wild-card decisions that suddenly turned tactics but there was none of that with the Sweden match as he largely persisted with the play-off line-up. Given that Belgium have more stars than just Zlatan Ibrahimovic, this is probably going to require something different from the manager.
John Chapman: Belgium’s form could not be worse. After an uninspiring qualification for the Euros, they never looked convincing in the warm-up games. Then came the match with Italy and they were totally out-thought. Antonio Conte certainly won the tactical battle with Wilmots, although using the word ‘battle’ is over-stating the contest. Wilmots remains confident but he has been heavily criticised across the globe and he’s referred to the next two games as a matter of life or death.
Miguel Delaney: Ireland’s opening draw with Sweden was not just a continuation of recent form but a continuation of their major tournament history: hard to beat but they find it tough to win. The Paris match was their seventh 1-1 draw in 20 tournament games. The most frustrating aspect was that they really should have won quite easily against a conspicuously weak Sweden team.
After creating enough chances to be about 3-0 ahead, though, Ireland so warily and cautiously retreated once Wes Hoolahan had scored. It immediately handed the initiative to Sweden, who claimed the goal they need. The nature of the groups means Ireland now likely need to win one of their two tougher games to go through but the question is whether they’re built for it. The main hope is that Ireland’s general competitiveness gradually makes a nervous Belgium side who need to win a bit more anxious, which could leave opportunities in behind.
John Chapman: With Wilmots certain to play a creative No 10, Marouane Fellaini will only have Axel Witsel at his back and they may find themselves outnumbered by Ireland’s likely 4-2-3-1 with Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy and Wes Hoolahan playing for their lives. Fellaini will need to win the ball and harass the Irish in order to allow Hazard the space to open up Ireland’s defence. Wilmots rates Fellaini highly while others would prefer to see Nainggolan or Moussa Dembélé in this role.
Miguel Delaney: It was Shane Long but it has become Wes Hoolahan. Long may be one of the few players capable of scoring for Ireland - but Hoolahan is one of the few capable of creating and giving the side that extra dimension. That could be a key against a surprisingly immobile and boxy Belgium midfield. Hoolahan’s ability to move between lines and so quickly turn defensive solidity into a sleeker attack could help spring a surprise.
John Chapman: Despite Belgium’s shortcomings, I see them winning this one but not by a big margin. There will be goals and I’ll go for Belgium to win with over 2.5 goals at 2.75.
Miguel Delaney: With Belgium having fine attacking players and Ireland’s moderate defensive ones, but Marc Wilmots putting in a somewhat improvised defence, both teams to score at 2.00.
John Chapman: Even though Fellaini will be playing further back, I see him being there or thereabouts for the set pieces, so let’s say Fellaini to score at 4.60.
Miguel Delaney: John O’Shea to score from a set-piece at 26.00 - it is Ireland’s main weapon and he should have struck from one in the Sweden match.
John Chapman: Belgium 2-1 Ireland at 9.00.
Miguel Delaney: Belgium 1-1 Ireland at 7.00.