Belgium looks to lay down marker against Italy
LYON, France (AP) Belgium's ''golden generation'' of players will be looking to live up to the hype when they take on an aging Italian side in their opening Group E match at the European Championship on Monday.
Second-ranked Belgium has been tipped by many to win Euro 2016 despite a fairly lackluster display at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The team is laden with stars from goalkeeper to striker, many of whom ply their trade at top clubs in the English Premier League.
But should Italy's renowned defenders keep the likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne at bay, then the pressure on Belgium will ratchet up in a group that also includes Ireland - rarely an easy opponent - and Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Sweden.
The clash, a repeat of a friendly match last November which Belgium won 3-1, promises to be one of the most highly anticipated of the group stage.
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots concedes that, given the choice, he would have liked an easier opponent.
''I actually would have preferred to face this opponent in the third match (of the group phase),'' Wilmots said Thursday at Belgium's training camp in Bordeaux. ''We will have to deal with it. If you lose, there'll be a lot more stress on the following two matches. If you win, it gives you a nice breath of fresh air.''
Up front, Wilmots has a wealth of talent at his disposal. As well as Chelsea's Hazard and Manchester City's De Bruyne, he can also call upon Everton striker Romelu Lukaku and Liverpool forwards Divock Origi and Christian Benteke.
Hazard will be in the spotlight after a disappointing World Cup in 2014 and a below-par season for Chelsea just a year after he was English football's Player of the Year.
The ''Red Devils''' only apparent weakness is the defense in front of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
Center back Vincent Kompany would have provided a sure anchor, but the Manchester City captain was ruled out after picking up an injury in the Champions League semifinal, which the team eventually lost to Real Madrid. That means Wilmots will likely shift Tottenham defender Toby Alderweireld over to center back.
Belgium's high-profile attackers know it won't be easy against an Italian side that will likely rely more on its defensive traditions following a string of injuries to its midfield and deficiencies up front. Gianluigi Buffon, the 38-year-old goalkeeper, will once again be Italy's defensive figurehead. He will be shielded by a line of three defenders composed of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini.
''Defensive solidarity must be our number one target,'' Chiellini said. ''I don't think a team necessarily needs to score that many goals. You only have to score one more than your opponents and concede one less. That is what really counts.''
Scoring more than a couple is not going to come easy for a team that notched up three goals in a single game on one occasion during its 10 qualifiers - and that was against Azerbaijan.
This is certainly not the Italy that Mario Balotelli powered to the final in 2012.
Chelsea-bound manager Antonio Conte has been criticized in some quarters for leaving out midfield talisman Andrea Pirlo. To make matters worse Pirlo's replacements, Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio, were unavailable because of injury.
But with a pedigree that's built upon four World Cups and one European Championship, it'd be foolish to discount Italy.
Especially against a Belgium side that may be overly eager to make a strong start in its hunt for an elusive title.