LILLE, France: History awaits the victors as Wales talisman Gareth Bale and rejuvenated Belgium star Eden Hazard lead their respective golden generations into battle in Friday’s Euro 2016 quarterfinals in Lille.
Belgium, second in the FIFA ranking, is desperate to make good on their squad’s vast potential and reach a first major semifinals since the 1986 World Cup.
Wales are riding high in their first major tournament in 58 years and having outlasted British rivals England and Northern Ireland, their confidence is at an all-time high.
“I think it is fair to say it could be the biggest ever game for Wales,” said Bale, the tournament’s joint-top scorer with three goals.
“We know about the quarterfinals in 1958 (at the World Cup), but since then it’s definitely the biggest game in Welsh football.
“It is 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.”
After hitting the heights in a 3-0 win over Russia in their final Group B game, Chris Coleman’s Wales had to dig deep to see off Northern Ireland in the last 16.
An attritional match was settled in the 75th minute when Bale’s cross was turned in by Gareth McAuley for an own goal, but Friday’s game could be a more open encounter.
Beaten 2-0 by Italy in their first match, Marc Wilmots’s Belgium have since grown in stature, beating the Republic of Ireland and Sweden before crushing Hungary 4-0.
The victory over Hungary was built around a man-of-the-match display from Hazard, who scored one goal and made another in one of his finest international performances.
After a bleak season with Chelsea, the 25-year-old embodies Belgium’s hopes of improving on their quarterfinals showing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Pressure on Wilmots
Hazard sustained a minor thigh problem against Hungary that kept him out of training for two days, but he will return to training on Thursday and is expected to start against Wales.
Like Hazard, Bppale is the symbol of his team’s rise. He has already enjoyed success against Belgium, scoring the only goal of the teams’ qualifying encounter in Cardiff a year ago.
It was a result that confirmed Wales’s arrival as a force, but Belgium defender Toby Alderweireld is confident his side will not meet the same fate again.
“We have the players to stop Bale,” said the Tottenham Hotspur center-back. “We can’t have silly concentration lapses when we have the ball.
“Since the start, our objective has been to win the tournament. But it’s important to go into each match in the right way.”
Alderweireld will play in a reconfigured defence at Stade Pierre-Mauroy, with 21-year-old Manchester City centre-back Jason Denayer set to replace the suspended Thomas Vermaelen.
Atletico Madrid winger Yannick Ferreira Carrasco could also come into the team in place of Dries Mertens after a goal-scoring cameo against Hungary.
Wales captain Ashley Williams was pictured with his left arm in a sling after the win over Northern Ireland, following a collision with teammate Jonathan Williams, but the Swansea City center-back took a full part in training on Wednesday.
As Belgium are likely to adopt a higher line than Northern Ireland, Hal Robson-Kanu could return up front for Wales in place of the less mobile Sam Vokes.
With average squad ages of 26.9 and 26 respectively, Wales and Belgium convene at a time when both groups of players are arriving at maturity.
Belgium’s star-studded line-up makes them favorites, but Coleman believes the expectation that has clung to their players in recent years could give his side an advantage.
“Going into the tournament, the pressure is on Marc (Wilmots), because of the team and the quality,” said the Wales manager.
“They have to at least get to the semifinals, the finals or even win it. That comes with its own pressures.”