Chris Coleman wants his Wales players to stay hungry and try to advance in Friday’s quarter-final against Belgium, rather than merely being satisfied with being the last home nation still involved at Euro 2016.
“I’ve heard it said that Wales can’t lose whatever happens, but that’s not the way we are looking at it,” the manager said. “We see this as another big test, a huge challenge in a line of challenges that we have already met. The pressure is on us to keep performing, and that’s what we want to do, because you have to put this down as the biggest game our country has been involved in, which is a great place to be.
“I don’t mean any disrespect to the team that reached the World Cup quarter-final in 1958 by that, but no one knew about that tournament – we’ve all heard the stories about the players coming home and being asked where they had been. Things are a little bit different now, we are where we are and we have earned it. We might be under pressure against a top team like Belgium but it’s fantastic pressure to have.”
Belgium were reinstalled among the tournament favourites after their handsome round-of-16 victory against Hungary, though they have a few defensive problems going into the game in Lille. Already missing Thomas Vermaelen through suspension, Marc Wilmots lost another key defender the day before the game when Tottenham Hotspur’s Jan Vertonghen twisted an ankle in training. Initial reports suggested he might be out for four months; Wilmots believes he might be back in half that time, though clearly his tournament is over.
“That will be a big loss for Belgium, though I imagine they have other high‑quality replacements to come in,” Coleman said. “Vertonghen is a very good player, though I don’t want to spend too much time wondering about Belgium’s side. No disrespect to our opponents but we never look past ourselves.”
Wilmots was able to confirm that Vertonghen tore two of his three ankle ligaments in an accident at the end of training, and will probably be replaced by Jordan Lukaku. “It is a tricky situation, with Vermaelen out and Vincent Kompany not with us, but I have no doubts about the quality of my replacements,” the Belgium manager said. “We must try and win with the weapons at our disposal.”
Wales have a good record against Belgium, having met them in qualifying and secured a draw in Brussels followed by a famous victory in Cardiff, though Coleman would rather make history than rely on it. “What I’ll be telling my players is that the games we’ve had in the past count for nothing, it’s all about the next game,” he said. “This is a quarter‑final, we are in the knockout stage. It’s an isolated game, there will be no second chances, no taking a draw or fighting another day. At the end of the night one team will be going home, and we don’t want it to be us. We’ve got to be at our best to max out the game, and that’s what the boys keep doing.”
Ashley Williams appears to have won his fitness battle and is set to play after overcoming the shoulder injury he picked up against Northern Ireland, when his refusal to come off the pitch exemplified both his own indomitable style and the celebrated team spirit within the Wales camp. “It’s all true, we are a band of brothers,” Williams said. “The togetherness we have comes from the tough times we have known – we have grown up together. I heard Chris Gunter say we were unbreakable the other day and that’s exactly what it is. We have all been through so much.”
Coleman can also vouch for that. After taking over the Wales job in difficult circumstances following the death of Gary Speed, he became the first Wales manager to lose his first five matches.
He considered quitting after a 6-1 defeat in Serbia as Wales failed to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil, but stayed on and eventually saw a turnaround in results that ultimately led to Wales reaching a tournament for the first time since 1958. “This campaign has been a success, but we have all known some tough times not too long ago,” he said. “We have had dark days and huge disappointments, and that’s when you find out about the people around you. That’s when you judge people, not on the sunshiny days, and that’s where you get your team spirit from. It comes from standing up for yourself in adversity, from fighting on and refusing to give in.
“Team spirit can only come from events on the pitch – that’s where you see players standing up for each other. If it comes from anywhere else it’s false if you ask me. That’s why I am happy to have Ashley as my captain. I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that a team needs a leader, that you need a strong character to lead a strong dressing room, and Ashley has never let me down.”
There is mutual respect between the two teams, having met so often in the past. “We always seem to struggle to score against Wales, they have a big defensive block at the back and a superstar up front,” Eden Hazard said.
Coleman said: “They know us, we know them. They have imagination, pace and power, and quite rightly people see them as an offensive team, a side that likes to attack. We are seen as defensive, though the facts don’t actually back that up. Belgium have scored eight goals so far in this tournament, we have scored seven, so there’s not that much between us.”Wales (3-5-2, probable): Hennessey; Chester, Williams, Davies; Gunter, Allen, Ledley, Ramsey, Taylor; Bale, Robson-Kanu.
Belgium (4-2-3-1, probable): Courtois; Meunier, Denayer, Aldeweireld, J Lukaku; Nainggolan, Witsel; Hazard, De Bruyne, Mertens; R Lukaku.
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