PREVIEW - Belgium await friendly invasion by Ireland
By Steve Tongue
BORDEAUX, France (Reuters) - Having, in the words of their coach Marc Wilmots, “lost a battle but not the war” Belgium present arms again for Saturday’s encounter with Ireland on what they consider to be home territory of Bordeaux.
The Red Devils have set up camp for the Euro 2016 campaign just outside the city, using the training headquarters of Girondins Bordeaux, the club for whom Wilmots once played.
He has come under unfriendly fire there following the 2-0 defeat by Italy in the opening group match but insisted this week there would be no change of an attacking philosophy based around the talents of players such as Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.
Unfortunately, the latter pair were badly out of sorts against the Italians, while defensive fallibility was evident, too, in the absence from the tournament of the injured Vincent Kompany and Nic Lombaerts.
De Bruyne and Hazard were both given extra time off this week after suffering minor knocks but are expected to be fit. Some Belgian critics would prefer to see their roles reversed, however, with Hazard playing as the number 10 behind the main striker and De Bruyne out wide.
For however much or little it counts, Belgium have history on their side in not having lost to the Irish for 50 years, which includes beating them by a single goal in the playoffs to win a place at the 1998 World Cup in France.
That gave them a game against Mexico in Bordeaux in which they wilted to a draw in heat that has hardly been a problem at this tournament.
If the Belgians are regarding this as a home fixture, however, they will be shaken by the strength in numbers of the Irish.
Green “army” or not, Ireland’s traditionally friendly followers are more likely to take on the opposition in a sing-song than a fight.
They have already been named the best supporters by one French social media site and tear gas should not be required.
After their team lost every game at Euro 2012 and failed to qualify for the last World Cup, the mood ahead of a difficult Group E programme was guarded, but in Paris on Monday only an own goal prevented victory in a 1-1 draw with Sweden.
Manager Martin O’Neill said he was delighted with the performance.
Wideman Jon Walters, with an Achilles problem, is his main injury concern as the Irish seek a first victory at a major tournament since 2002.
(Reporting by Steve Tongue; editing by Clare Lovell)