Wales, the last of the home nations left standing in Euro 2016, face in-form Belgium with a place in the semi-finals of the European Championships on the line (8pm Friday on BBC1).
Chris Coleman’s side secured their passage to the last eight with a 1-0 victory over Northern Ireland last weekend, with Gareth McAuley’s own goal ultimately making the difference in the duo’s round of 16 tie at the Parc des Princes.
It was a dull game in truth, and Wales were slightly fortunate to edge out Michael O’Neill’s men after a rather flat all-round performance, but it would be harsh to begrudge the Euro debutants their spot in the latter stages of the competition. Wales did brilliantly to seal first place in Group B ahead of England, Slovakia and Russia after amassing six points from their first three matches. They also did a fine job of limiting Northern Ireland to only a handful of half-chances on Saturday, even if they themselves struggled to create clear-cut goalscoring opportunities for much of the encounter.
Belgium got off to the worst possible start this summer by losing 2-0 to Italy in their opening fixture, but Marc Wilmots’ charges have improved since then and look to be in reasonably good shape ahead of their meeting with the Welsh. Their 4-0 thrashing of Hungary in the round of 16 on Sunday was one of the best displays of the tournament. The Group F winners were torn apart by a team who ran riot on the break. Significant question marks remain about Wilmots’ tactical nous and the Red Devils’ coherence, organisation and shape off the ball, but there is no denying that the individual talent they possess makes them a match for almost anyone in France.
Wales’ defensive lynchpin Ashley Williams (pictured) is set to be passed fit after injuring his shoulder against Northern Ireland. Coleman is likely to name the same starting XI that sent the Dragons through to the quarter-finals. Belgium could again be without Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Mousa Dembele, while Yannick Ferreira Carrasco is battling it out with Dries Mertens for a starting spot on the right flank. Thomas Vermaelen will miss out through suspension, which could see Jan Vertonghen redeployed at centre-half.
This quarter-final has the potential to be a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable affair, with both sides having played some excellent attacking football at times during the competition. Belgium’s extra quality should be enough to see them register another win. Their talented frontline includes Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku and is likely to cause Wales an abundance of problems at the back. The Belgium defence is looking reasonably solid since that aforementioned defeat by Italy, and even that form does not look so bad since Italy sent Spain packing. Belgium have now recorded three consecutive clean sheets against the Republic of Ireland, Sweden and Hungary.
With both teams looking far more dangerous on the counter-attack than in phases of established possession, the first goal in this match could prove pivotal. The nation that concedes first will be obliged to push forward in search of an equaliser. That, in turn, will probably mean more space is available behind their backline and in between the lines of midfield and defence for the opposition to exploit.
Belgium are likely to dominate the ball in the opening stages given that they are the favourites to advance, and if they are able to strike first they will be an excellent position to go on and win the game.
Overall, then, this preview anticipates a 3-1 Belgium triumph and Manchester City playmaker De Bruyne – who has been much improved since Wilmots moved him into a No. 10 role from the flank – to find the back of the net first.