Throughout Euro 2016, team spirit has prevailed over individual quality. Smaller nations have overcome the odds as more illustrious opponents have faltered. Wales will hope to continue that trend against Belgium.
Pre-tournament, Wales and Belgium were on separate ends of the bookmakers’ odds. While the Belgians were tipped as among the favorites for the title, the Welsh were simply aiming for a place in the knockout rounds.
Now, with both sides on the ‘easy’ side of the draw, a route to the final is more than just an abstract possibility. Belgium are on track to match their reputation, Wales are already exceeding theirs. On Friday night, a place in the semifinals is on the line.
The knockout stages have already produced two upsets, as less gifted players have combined to defeat more illustrious opponents. Italy under Antonio Conte defeated the technically-lauded Spain, while Iceland produced the shock of the tournament with victory over England.
Wales are aiming to perform a similar feat against Belgium. And they don’t have to go far back to prove to themselves that they’re up to the task.
The two teams met in qualifying for Euro 2016, with Wales securing a goalless draw in Belgium before claiming a 1-0 victory in Wales. It was Belgium’s only defeat in their qualifying campaign.
Gareth Bale was the man who scored the decisive strike, and indeed he had a hand in nine of Wales’ 11 goals in qualifying, meaning he directly contributed to 82% of their strikes. He has already scored three goals in Euro 2016, once again leading his team in the offensive third.
Yet the true danger man for Wales may actually be coach Chris Coleman. In charge since 2012, Coleman rode through a difficult initial period to lead Wales to their first major tournament since 1958 and his players have continually praised his match-day preparations.
Consistency has been key for Coleman, with the former Fulham manager rarely chopping and changing his personnel and largely sticking with a core group of players, developing a close bond in his squad.
“With our team spirit, it’s like being with your mates on holiday,” Bale said.
“[Belgium] is the one we’re looking forward to. We just want to enjoy the occasion, take it all in and hopefully we can get into the semis.”
The players look relaxed off the field and determined on it. This is a team in every sense of the word, and they will be confident of overcoming a Belgium squad criticized early in Euro 2016 for its lack of cohesion on the pitch.
Coach Marc Wilmots has received most of the flak as he has struggled to definitively settle on a preferred starting XI since taking charge of the national team in 2012.
He was lambasted for the team’s opening 2-0 loss to Italy and has had to make a few tweaks.
The most important has been shifting Kevin De Bruyne from the wing into a more central position, where he is at his most effective. Ejecting the lumbering Marouane Fellaini has allowed a more fluid style to emerge in attack.
The progression culminated in Belgium’s 4-0 thrashing of a structurally poor Hungary in the round of 16, star man Eden Hazard running riot with a goal and assist. It was the most emphatic result in Euro 2016 so far.
Yet injury may rule Hazard out. The Chelsea man has missed two training sessions this week with a thigh injury, and center-back Thomas Vermaelen is suspended. Wilmots’ tactical abilities will be put to the test against Wales as he is forced to rejig a winning formula.
“We can’t have silly concentration lapses when we have the ball,” defender Toby Alderweireld admitted.
“Since the start, our objective has been to win the tournament. But it’s important to go into each match in the right way.”
If Belgium are to fulfill their ambitions and reach their potential, they will have to find a way through Wales’ plucky defensive structure.
In recent meetings, the fixture has been close. Only five goals have been scored in the past four games, highlighting that the quarter-final clash could be a close affair.
Euro 2016 has thrown up yet another clash between underdog and favorite, and neutrals will be eager to see whether the odds can be overturned once again.